Many mountain state fires often can be prevented, but dangers, c - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Many mountain state fires often can be prevented, but dangers, costs continue to mount

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More than 100 deaths were attributed to fires in West Virginia last year.

Officials said cooking and heating fires often are to blame for the fatal fires. Another small, but deadly factor, is improperly discarded smoking materials.

Often the start of these fires includes something that could have been prevented, fire officials said, which makes the statistic that West Virginians are three times more likely to die in a fire than any other state even more unsettling.

A fatal fire in Randolph County claimed the lives of four children and two adults Oct. 28. The state Fire Marshal's Office said the blaze took the lives of a husband, wife and their three young children. Most of the occupants died later as a result of severe burns. Investigators say the Elkins home had no working smoke detectors and the five may have been caused by a cigarette.

Another fire in Parkersburg destroyed a house in the Julia-Ann Historic District. Fire investigators said the fire, which started on the back porch, was determined to have been caused by discarded smoking materials in a plastic trash can. Windy conditions contributed to the spread of that fire, firefighters said.

Causes of deadly fires

Fires are not a new thing for the state of West Virginia, but one of the causes is. 

In the past several years, a new cause of some of the fires is a drug on the rise throughout the state — methamphetamine.

Although meth fires aren't always deadly, they can become serious for all those involved in the clean-up and determination process.

"We've had a few incidents of severe burns, and we've had a couple of fatalities, but we haven't seen an increase per se in meth-related fatalities," said Mark Lambert, senior assistant to the State Fire Marshal. "A lot of fires in the last five years have been caused by meth — there is going to be a correlation." 

Cleaning up meth can also be costly.

Lambert said it depends on what stage firefighters find the fire in as to how quickly and properly they can determine whether meth caused it. However he said meth laws are vague and classified under the category of an "accidental" fire. 

Things have changed and the science has gotten better over the last decade. Forensic science wasn't what it is now and has allowed for a more scientific approach than in recent years, he said.

Parkersburg Fire Department Executive Officer Capt. Tim Flinn said the fire department tries to stay involved in educating its staff as well as working closely with law enforcement officers when it comes to meth-related incidents.

"The people that are using the meth are going to extreme measures to get the meth and not realizing the dangers that they are exposed to," he said. "Either (users put themselves in danger) due to lack of education or not mentally sound when under the influence of drugs or alcohol."

Flinn said the biggest problems they face are juvenile fire setters and vacant house fires.

"Some of the past fires involving juveniles were small (and) gang-related as … initiation," Flinn said. "The vagrant fire setters sometimes occur as a result to stay warm in the colder seasons and/or spite revenge from other vagrants."

Flinn said several automobile arson fires have been set as insurance scams.

Any time a fire results in a fatality it is considered tragic, and often those deaths could have been avoided, Flinn said.

"Many fatal fires have been as a result of discarded smoking material or careless smoking," he said. "The other cause (of) many of these fires involved space heaters — such as the ventless open flame gas heaters. 

"It becomes difficult to determine if the heaters malfunctioned or if combustible materials were too close to the heaters to contribute starting the fire." 

The fatal fire statistics are not unique to the Mountain State. Other states in the country are dealing with startling numbers.

In a 2010 study done by the U.S. Fire Administration, West Virginia was second only to the District of Columbia in highest risk of death during a fire. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia had a relative risk higher than that of the general population, the study showed.

In September, the National Fire Protection Agency said an estimated 1.3 million fires were responded to by agencies throughout the United States. 

The fires resulted in 2,855 civilian fire fatalities, 16,500 civilian fire injuries and an estimated $12.4 million in direct property loss.

In the past year alone, civilian fire deaths occurred every three hours and four minutes and a civilian fire injury every 32 minutes. Fires accounted for 4 percent of the 31.8 million total calls, to emergency agencies and 7 percent of the calls were false alarms.

Fatal fires at home

There have been three large, deadly fires in the Mountain State in the past decade.

In 2007, nine people were killed as a result of an apartment building fire in Huntington. In March 2012, nine people, including six children, were killed in a Charleston house fire.

Since the deadly fire last year in Charleston, the Mountain State had not seen a fire of that caliber until the recent fire in Elkins.

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones reported the fire in 2012 to be the city's largest in at least six decades.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in a column at the beginning of November the death toll from fires for 2013 in the state since Jan. 1 exceeds 50.

"West Virginians are more than three times more likely to die in a fire than the general U.S. population," Tomblin said.

Although fires in the state can be attributed to smoking materials and no working smoke detectors, fires often are started from cooking or heating devices. In 2012, cooking fires were on the rise in the Mountain State in the cause category with 776 fires, or a little more than 20 percent of all fires in the state, second only to unknown causes.

Six percent of fires in the state were caused by arson and 10 percent were from heating.

Contributing factors and prevention

According to Tomblin, assistance is available for emergency officials to hand out smoke detectors and install them in homes for free. In Kanawha County, that assistance comes in the form of a $6,000 grant.

Fire departments throughout the state can apply for a grant, the Assistance to Firefighters, provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

While methamphetamine has been a new cause of fires in the state in recent years, alcohol has been contributing to fire fatalities for many years.

Lambert said people often come home from a night of drinking, put something on the stove and cause a fire. He said those are classified as cooking fires even though alcohol may have been the cause.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, impairment from drugs and alcohol contributed to an annual average of 380, or 14 percent of home fire deaths from 2005 to 2009. 

The fire marshal's office said something as simple as shutting the bedroom door at night can mean life or death when it comes to a structure fire. 

Most smoke detector brands say to put them both inside and outside the door, but Lambert said the idea is to hear the one outside where the fire might be, giving occupants of the home more time to react.

"Most people I've talked to don't sleep with their bedroom door closed," he said. 

He said having working smoke detectors in a house is important, and so is checking them annually.

"Something so cheap could save your life or your family's lives," he said.

Flinn said people should be aware of their surroundings, including knowing the exit of a building at all times.

"Notice if there are smoke detection systems in place and never hesitate to call 911 for the fire department," he said. "An automatic extinguishing system for homes is available, but many people look at it as an expensive measure or unnecessary when really it is not expensive to install when compared to the value of one's home and their contents."

Flinn said even houses in rural settings can have a separate reservoir the size of a hot water tank just for the sprinkler system to knock down the initial start of a fire.

"The determining of fires is not only important with intentionally set fires but the accidental ones are just as important," Flinn said. "We want the public to be safe and I recommend contacting your local fire department or fire marshal's office to seek any safety education you may need."