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Landmark study on preventable fire deaths

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29 Aug 2019
Every week on average more than one person dies in a house fire in Australia, with the elderly, the young, the disabled, those who live alone and the poor most vulnerable.

Residential fires cause more deaths each year than other natural hazards combined such as floods, storms and bushfires, and the rate has remained steady over the past decade.

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable fire-related deaths with the bedroom and living room identified as the most common areas of fatal fires.

These alarming statistics have been revealed today as part of a landmark study more than 14 years in the making.

Commissioned by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) and the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC), the research was funded by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre and Macquarie University, with MFB and Risk Frontiers conducting the research.

Spanning 14 years, the report used Coronial data to analyse preventable house fire deaths nationally in a bid to identify common risk factors and prevent future tragedies.

The study found that people over the age of 65 are at the greatest risk of dying in a residential fire and that the risk increased with age.

People with a physical disability, pre-school aged children, those suffering from social or financial disadvantage and people who live alone were also over-represented in fatal fires.

Where the smoking status of victims was known, 65.4 per cent were smokers and 26.7 per cent of fires were caused by smoking.

The study also found that the co-occurrence of multiple risk factors is likely to significantly increase a person’s risk of dying in a residential fire.

MFB Acting Chief Executive Officer/Chief Officer Greg Leach said the research provided a crucial insight into the significant risk factors which were at play in fires which claimed the lives of Australians.

 “The heart-breaking thing is that the vast majority of fatal house fires are preventable,” Acting CEO/CO Leach said.

“As firefighters our job is not just to extinguish fires but to stop them from happening in the first place.

“Studies like these provide vital intelligence that assist fire and rescue services better understand why these incidents are happening and who is most at risk.

“This enables us to develop evidence-based policies and practices to hopefully reduce the number of fatal fires.

“Even one person dying in a house fire is one too many.”

Risk Frontiers and Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre lead researcher Lucinda Coates said the research would help inform future fire safety campaigns nationally.

  “This new data provides crucial information for all fire and community safety agencies. The groups identified as most at risk and vulnerable are also the groups that are most difficult to reach in general fire safety campaigns.”

AFAC CEO Stuart Ellis believes the research will inform future fire safety campaigns nationally.

“The research helps us to better understand the complexity of the problem so we can target information where it is most needed, “he said.

“The industry has agreed to work collaboratively to develop a national residential fire strategy ‘towards zero’ to reduce preventable residential fire fatalities.”

The Preventable Residential Fire Fatalities in Australia: July 2003 to June 2017 report is being released today at Australia’s largest emergency management conference, AFAC19 powered by INTERSCHUTZ, in Melbourne, with MFB leading the presentation to emergency service peers from around the country.

The full report is available at

Key research findings

·         Between July 2003 – June 2017 at least 900 people have died in preventable residential fires in Australia, averaging 64 deaths per year and more than one per week. This equates to approximately the same number of deaths as occurred during the Black Saturday bushfires every three years.

·         Over this period, there was no clear declining trend in fire fatalities.

·         These deaths are overwhelmingly preventable.

·         Older people are at greater risk with 36.4 per cent of fatalities involving victims over the age of 65.

·         People with a disability are at greater risk with 61.8 per cent of fatalities involving victims with a disability.

·         Where the smoking status of victims was known, 65.4 per cent were smokers.

·         Males are over represented in fatal fires (64.3 per cent.)

·         44.5 per cent of fatal fires involved people who lived alone.

·         Young children (aged 0-4) represent 7.8 per cent of fatalities.

·         Alcohol is a risk factor with 32.7 per cent of victims found to have alcohol in their blood.

·         Social and financial disadvantage was also a risk factor.

·         The co-occurrence of multiple risk factors are likely to significantly increase a person’s risk of dying in a residential fire.

·         The bedroom and living room are the most common locations of fatal house fires.


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