The bulk of fire-related deaths in the United States happen in the place where we should actually feel safest: at home. Massachusetts has a huge fire problem, so being aware of the risk factors of residential fires is important.
In this article, we will take a look at some of the major fires Massachusetts has experienced in its time, the main causes of fires today, and prevention and alarm solutions you should have in place to prevent a fire from starting in your home.
5 Major Fires in Massachusetts History
A number of fires in Massachusetts’ history have gone down as some of the most infamous and damaging in the entire country. Here are some of the biggest fires in the state’s history:
On March 20, 1760, a major fire broke out in Downtown Boston. It began in a residential dwelling in Cornhill, and the cause is unknown.
The conflagration made its way east toward Oliver’s Dock on the harbor, setting many buildings and ships ablaze in its wake.
The inferno continued to spread across the area, eventually destroying 174 houses and 175 warehouses and shops. This left over 220 families (more than 1,000 people) homeless and many business owners without premises.
Significantly, no deaths were reported. But the fire was, and still is, dubbed one of the largest to spread in Boston.
The Great Boston Fire of 1872 began on November 9, 1872, in the basement of a warehouse on the corner of Kingston Street and Summer Street.
(Source: Boston Public Library)
At the time, Boston streets were narrow, and the buildings were close together. The roofs were wooden with wooden framings, which added to the quick spread of the flames.
Despite efforts to halt the blaze, some of the buildings were too tall for fire ladders to reach the top. And although Boston had fire alarm boxes installed throughout the city in 1852, hose pressure was insufficient, and the fire began to spread rapidly. Gas lines added fuel to the conflagration.
Over the course of 12 hours, 65 acres of Downtown Boston and 776 buildings, including residential and financial districts, were consumed by the blaze. But unlike the Great Boston Fire of 1760, this time there was loss of life too, as 13 people, including two Boston firefighters, were killed.
The Great Fire of 1872 is still regarded as one of the most expensive fire-related losses in the history of the country. Today, the damages would amount to around $1.4 billion.
On April 12, 1908, a major fire broke out in Chelsea, Massachusetts. It started at the Boston Blacking Company and was quickly put out. However, escaping sparks set nearby houses ablaze and started the major conflagration.
The fire moved east, destroying 1,500 buildings and leaving over 12,000 people homeless. Even buildings of solid granite were destroyed, along with schools, churches, bank buildings, and the city hall.
Overall, 19 people were killed in the Great Chelsea Fire of 1908. This came to be known as the first Great Chelsea fire, succeeded by the second in 1973.
The Cocoanut Grove Fire of 1942 broke out at a nightclub in Boston on November 28, 1942. To this day, it is still known as the most fatal nightclub fire in the history of the United States.
While the origin of the blaze remains unknown, people speculate it began from a lit match catching fire on the fronds of a palm tree below the ceiling downstairs. The flames quickly spread up the stairs and covered the entirety of the building within five minutes.
To this day, the fire is surrounded in controversy. The nightclub was being run illegally, and safety violations and a crowd over the guest capacity contributed to the severity of the damage and number of deaths. Exit signs were not visible, and exit doors did not allow for safe and easy access.
Overall, 492 people died in the Cocoanut Grove Fire of 1942, and hundreds more people were injured in the blaze.
The 2014 Boston Brownstone fire took place on March 26, 2014, in Boston’s Back Bay.
Allegedly, the blaze started from sparks coming from welding being done on an iron railing near the basement of a four-story brick row apartment building. The inferno spread upward from this basement as high winds fanned the flames. Over the course of the fire, nine alarms were set off at the nearby fire box as the fire worsened.
Two firefighters who responded to the first alarm died in the basement of the apartment building; 18 other nonfatal injuries occurred, with 13 of those injuries happening to firefighters. The legal battle to determine who was responsible was a long one, but ultimately the deaths of these firefighters were ruled accidental.
Which Areas in Massachusetts Are More Fire Prone?
Annual fact sheets issued by the MFIRS (Massachusetts Fire Incident Reporting System) relay statistics that can help people understand why fires occur and where they are more likely to happen so residents can prevent them in the future. Although fires can occur almost anywhere, they are most likely to occur in homes and businesses.
Data analysis of fires in Massachusetts between 2012 and 2017 determined that structural fires (fires in residential buildings or businesses) happen more often than fires in motor vehicles or other open areas:
- 2012: 17,536 structural fires out of 31,229 overall fires (56%)
- 2013: 17,353 structural fires out of 29,828 overall fires (58%)
- 2014: 17,395 structural fires out of 28,989 overall fires (60%)
- 2015: 16,993 structural fires out of 31,302 overall fires (54%)
- 2016: 16,955 structural fires out of 31,889 overall fires (53%)
- 2017: 17,098 structural fires out of 27,895 overall fires (61%)
Of these structural fires, residential fires are the most common. Over 80% of building fires occur in residential buildings, and around half of all residential fires occur in multifamily apartment buildings. Each year, around 80% of civilian fire deaths occurred in the homes of the victims.
Who Are the Most Common Victims of Fires?
According to the MFIRS, it is more common for men to die from major blazes. Below are the statistics for 2012–2017, detailing how many men, women, children, and firefighters were victims of fires in Massachusetts:
- 39 civilian deaths: 21 men (54%), 17 women (44%), 1 child (2%)
- No firefighter deaths
- 33% of fatal fire victims were adults over 65
- 44 civilian deaths: 23 men (52%), 18 women (41%), 3 children (7%)
- No firefighter deaths
- 3% of fatal fire victims were adults over 65
- 54 civilian deaths: 27 men (50%), 21 women (39%), 6 children (11%)
- 2 firefighter deaths
- 28% of fatal fire victims were adults over 65
- 62 civilian deaths: 32 men (52%), 26 women (42%), 4 children (6%)
- No firefighter deaths
- 34% of fatal fire victims were adults over 65
- 56 civilian deaths: 30 men (54%), 22 women (39%), 4 children (7%)
- No firefighter deaths
- 29% of fatal fire victims were adults over 65
- 56 civilian deaths: 32 men (57%), 19 women (34%), 5 children (9%)
- 2 firefighter deaths
- 41% of fatal fire victims were adults over 65
From those statistics, it is clear that men are more likely to die in fires in Massachusetts, and that older adults are at high risk. Safety is nevertheless imperative regardless of your demographics, and fire alarms and safety measures should always be put in place.
The Most Common Causes of House Fires in MA
Each year the MFIRS determines the leading cause of fires in residential dwellings in Massachusetts. From 2012 to 2016, cooking accounted for 68–72% of residential building fires and injuries in Massachusetts.
In 2012, the most common cause of house fire that resulted in deaths was suicide-related blazes, closely followed by electrical and smoking fires. These latter two causes are generally the most common cause of fire-related deaths for a given year.
Other leading causes of fatalities are cooking fires and fires that can be traced back to heating equipment.
A contributing factor to these fires is the failure of fire alarms to go off or a lack of batteries or battery power in the devices. That’s why it is extremely important to be vigilant in fire escape protocols as well as making sure your alarm works.
Making sure your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are operating at all times can decrease the amount of property damage from a fire and could save lives. With a monitored home security system in Boston that includes fire protection, emergency responders can act quicker to ensure your safety.
Fire Prevention Tips for the 5 Most Common Causes of Residential Fires
Most blazes happen in the home. Because residential fires are so common, keeping up with fire safety in your Massachusetts home is becoming increasingly important. Below are tips for fire prevention, organized by the most common causes of residential fires:
1. Cooking safety
Cooking is the leading cause of fire outbreaks in the home. In order to prevent your kitchen from becoming another statistic, here are a few simple tips to follow.
First, make sure that all pans or grease fires are covered securely with a lid. Never leave a pan or pot unattended, and do not move a burning pan—you want to prevent any boiling over or spills.
Wear clothing that is not likely to catch fire, and keep all flammable objects away from the stovetop.
Metal should never go in the microwave, and you should always check whether or not the dish you are using is safely microwavable.
2. Smoking safety
Smoking is the leading cause of fire deaths in the home. If you are a smoker, it is extremely important to be responsible and to never leave a cigarette burning or put it out somewhere where it may fuel a fire.
Always put your cigarette out all the way—it takes mere seconds to check that you have safely extinguished the butt of your cigarette. Wetting the butts or placing them in sand once you are finished is a good way to ensure the butt is safely extinguished.
You should always know exactly where your cigarette has been put out. Never throw them out of the window or off the porch. Do not put them in mulch or potted plants—that’s also a fire hazard.
3. Electrical safety
Electrical problems are one of the leading causes of residential fires. It is important to be extremely vigilant when it comes to your electrical appliances.
In the kitchen, where most fires start, keep water away from electrical equipment and unplug appliances that are not in use. Overloading outlets is a huge fire risk.
Heating appliances should be plugged directly into outlets rather than into power strips or extension cords. Set up all cords so they are visible and unobstructed.
Laptops and phones should be charged on a hard, flat surface rather than on a soft one. It’s also a good idea to call in a professional to check on the electrical safety practices in your home and the working order of your outlets and cords.
4. Heating safety
Heating devices are a must in the winter, but you need to take a lot of precautions when it comes to safety against heating fires.
For space heaters, make sure there is nothing too close to the heater that may burn. Clothing materials are particularly flammable, so do not try to warm your clothes directly on heaters. Rather, keep all bedding, curtains, and clothing at least 3 feet away from your space heater.
Never leave your heater on when you leave the room—this is a safety precaution as well as a way to save electricity. The same goes for electric blankets. An electric blanket will always have a timer so that it does not stay on all night.
For fireplaces, prevent embers from sparking out by placing a metal or glass screen in front of the fireplace. Never burn paper in your fireplace, and always extinguish your fire when you leave the house or before you go to sleep.
5. Smoke and carbon monoxide alarm safety
You are legally required to have a working smoke alarm in your home, and in most places, you are also required to have carbon monoxide alarms.
Smoke alarms should be on every level of your home, outside of bedrooms as well as at the tops and bases of stairs. You should check that your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are working at least once a month and do regular checks on their batteries or power sources.
Batteries should be changed at least once a year. Smoke alarms themselves should be replaced at least once every 10 years to ensure optimal working order and safety.
To check on your alarms as well as your family’s ability to follow the correct procedures should a fire occur, create a home escape plan for your residence.
Home Sprinkler Solutions
Because there are so many flammable objects in the typical home (like plastic, foam rubber, laminates, and wood), things can catch fire quickly and result in extended damage on a larger and faster scale. Having a sprinkler system installed can buy you time and ultimately save your life should a blaze occur.
Sprinklers put out an estimated 90% of home fires before firefighters even arrive on the scene. They can help to prevent injuries, extensive damages, and fatalities. In addition to smoke alarms, sprinklers can help dramatically in your defense against a house fire.
Fire Alarm Solutions
You need to be as vigilant as possible when it comes to protecting your home or business from fires and the damage they cause. Know what types of detectors and alarms you need to keep your family and home safe. These are three main types of fire alarm solutions you may need:
- Heat detectors have a detecting element inside of them that goes off when a certain temperature is reached.
- Smoke alarms detect flames quicker than heat detectors do. Ionization smoke alarms respond best to fast, raging fires, while photoelectric smoke alarms respond best to slow, smoldering fires. It is recommended that you get a combination of the two in your home.
- Carbon monoxide detectors are also extremely important—carbon monoxide is known as the silent killer and is a gas caused by fuels that have not burned completely. The gas can be deadly, so having one of these detectors in your home can save you from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Investing in a fire alarm today, or making sure that yours is in perfect working condition, is essential. Along with the right safety precautions like a home security system, a professionally-monitored fire system is a solution that might just save your life and your property.