Injury or death caused by fire is frequent and largely preventable. This study was undertaken to define the populations, locations, times and behaviours associated with fatal fires. Seven hundred and twenty-seven fatalities occurring within the State of New Jersey, between the years 1985 and 1991, were examined retrospectively. Most deaths were attributed to a combination of smoke inhalation and burn injury. Five hundred and seventy-four fatalities occurred in residential fires. Smoking materials were the most common source of ignition for residential fires. More than half of the fatal residential fires started between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. Children and the elderly represented a disproportionate percentage of fire victims. Victims under the age of 11 years or over the age of 70 years constituted 22.1 per cent of the state population but 39.5 per cent of all fire fatalities. Fire-prevention efforts should target home fire safety, and should concentrate on children and the elderly. The development of fire-safe smoking materials should be encouraged.