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Type: Journal Article
Author(s): Derek McNamara; William E. Mell
Publication Date: 2024

Fires resulting from antecedent fires, known as exposure fires, can manifest across diverse environments, including suburban, urban, and rural areas. Notably, exposure fires represented by structure-destroying fires within the wildland–urban interface (WUI) can extend into non-WUI suburban and urban regions, presenting significant challenges. Leveraging data from the United States National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) spanning 2002 to 2020, this study investigates 131,739 exposure fire incidents impacting 348,089 features (incidents). We analyze reported economic costs, affected feature types, and property utilization patterns for these exposure fires. We also compare these exposure fires to information documented in other databases. Finally, we examine structure separation distance at residential dwellings and describe ignition pathways for selected fires. Reported property losses for some fire incidents amounted to USD 5,647,121,172, with content losses totaling USD 1,777,345,793. Prominent fire incident categories include buildings, vehicles, and natural vegetation fires, predominantly occurring in residential, outdoor, and storage areas. While the NFIRS lacked information on most major structure-destroying WUI fires, highlighting this analysis’s lack of statistical representation, it did provide insights into less extensive exposure fires, both WUI and non-WUI, unrecorded elsewhere. Our study reveals significant distinctions in the distribution of separation distances between damaged-to-damaged structures (average separation of 6.5 m) and damaged-to-not-damaged structures (average separation of 18.1 m). Notably, 84% of the incidents in exposure fires involved fire suppression defensive actions. These defensive actions contributed to the differences in structure separation distance distributions, highlighting the often-neglected role of these measures in assessing structure responses during WUI fires. We examined ignition pathways at select exposure fires, highlighting some common features involved in fire spread and challenges in documenting these pathways. Finally, we propose a set of idealized attributes for documenting exposure fires, accentuating the inherent difficulties in collecting such data across expansive geographical areas, particularly when striving for statistical representation. Our findings yield valuable insights into the multifaceted nature of exposure fires, informing future research and database development to aid in mitigating their impact on vulnerable communities.

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Citation: McNamara, Derek J.; Mell, William E. 2024. Examining exposure fires from the United States National Fire Incident Reporting System between 2002 and 2020. Fire 7(3):74.

Cataloging Information

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  • exposure fire
  • ignition pathways
  • NFIRS - National Fire Incident Reporting System
  • structure separation distance
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Record Maintained By: FRAMES Staff (
FRAMES Record Number: 69124