Lightning and Fire Increases at Apartments: Who’s counting the strikes?

Several residents were displaced when lightning ignited an attic fire at this Charlottesville,VA apartment complex on August 30, 2018.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an estimated 95,000 apartment structure fires occurred in the U.S. in 2016.  How many of these fires were sparked by lightning is unclear, but a quick Google search of the words “lightning, fires and apartments,” reveals news accounts of countless lightning-sparked property losses throughout the country. And that’s just what’s been reported over the past few months.

Fire and insurance authorities cite roadblocks to obtaining accurate data about these lightning losses due to a variety factors, namely:

  1. A complex National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) which is a voluntary data collection depository of U.S. fire departments participating; thus incomplete and subject to field challenges and reporting shortcomings.
  2. A number of participating departments who fail to provide consistent data (every year).
  3. FEMA data suggesting that fire reporting to federal or state fire departments or industrial fire brigades is also omitted in NFIRS estimates.
  4. Lightning fire classification charts published by NFPA citing exclusions of fires at apartments or other multi-family housing.
  5. Non-existent historical data and tracking of “lightning-sparked” fires and ensuing property losses (insurance statistics) at U.S. apartment complexes.

When it comes to lightning and apartment buildings, it’s unclear as to who is making final decisions regarding risk assessment, tolerable risk and whether lightning protection should be employed as mitigation. In many cases, developers and home builders play leading roles in the design and construction of residential buildings and apartment complexes with building codes and standards  (voluntary or otherwise), serving as key drivers in the construction decision-making process.

LPI is hopeful that improvements in the fire incident reporting systems can be enacted to make it easier for firefighters to provide good quality data about all fires–including those sparked by lightning. Unfortunately, funding to make even the most minor changes remains a challenge. In the meantime, while funding is under review, LPI encourages fire safety representatives to include lightning in their NFIRS and NFPA reports wherever relevant, so that communities and decision-makers can have an accurate strike count.

When fire professionals and first-responders take the lead for lightning safety, it helps prevent under-reporting about a potentially-devastating weather hazard and increases awareness about a preventable property risk.