On a cold morning in the Bronx, New York, in January 2022, a space heater in a duplex unit of a high-rise apartment ignited, sparking massive flames and sending thick black smoke through the nineteen floors of the apartment complex. The disaster resulted in 44 injuries and 17 deaths, including 8 children.
This was one of the most catastrophic fires in North America in decades, but just one fire of many with a horrific outcome in the first month of 2022. In the United States alone:
- A blaze that was started when a child accidentally ignited a Christmas tree killed a dozen people in an apartment complex in Philadelphia.
- A Portland, Maine, apartment fire sent 5 people to the hospital.
- Flames originating at a Dallas apartment complex sparked multiple house fires when the wind blew embers into a nearby community.
- An apartment fire in San Antonio caused the roof of the apartment building to collapse, completely destroying 12 units.
- 24 units were destroyed by a fire in a Houston apartment, damaging the structural integrity of the entire building. This was just one of many Texas apartment building fires in the month.
As these cases demonstrate, fire can affect people of all backgrounds in all geographic locations.
Housing fires have any number of causes, including but not limited to:
- Faulty, degraded or damaged electrical wiring
- Unattended candles or cigarettes
- Pots, pans or other dishes overheating in the kitchen
- Lithium batteries sparking or combusting
- Overstressed extension cords
- Improperly stored chemicals or natural gas cannisters
- Misused or malfunctioning heating or cooling units, including space heaters
An Increased Threat
A blaze in a multi-family residence can start any number of ways, but the harm often isn’t restricted to the area where the incident began. While the fire department’s aim is to minimize the damage to a vicinity as close to the source of origin as possible, firefighters face unique challenges in multi-unit buildings.
As communities grow and the need for housing increases, many structures that were once zoned for commercial use or for single family residence have been modified to house multiple families. In the process, safety hazards have not always been considered. Firefighters faced with putting out a fire in these buildings can run into myriad hazards, including:
- Unorthodox building construction
- Antiquated or insufficient electrical wiring
- Hard to find utility shutoffs
Further complicating matters, shared heating and cooling in a multi-unit home can create chutes for smoke, soot and asphyxiation-causing-gases to rush through the building. While a fire in a single room is burning, thick black smoke may be spreading toxic fumes, not only to other units in the building, but outside to adjacent properties.
A Rapid Threat
It’s important to be aware of just how fast a fire can spread in a multi-family property. Apartment fires can quickly spread heat and smoke throughout a building, affecting all occupants. In just thirty seconds a fire that was a minor inconvenience for one can turn into a life-threatening emergency for all.
A fire can quickly raise a room’s temperature to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, melting parts of the home and forcefully driving smoke odor and toxic soot into porous walls, insulation and furniture. Within minutes, dense smoke can begin to discolor appliances, furniture and upholstery, rapidly turning the most porous materials yellow and filling them with toxic odor. It then begins to stain grout, fiberglass and marble countertops and soon thereafter permanently tarnishes some metals.