By Chris Caraveo
Eight people have died in residential fires in Arizona in the first six months of 2019, and some of the victims share a few characteristics.
As of June 24, the U.S. Fire Administration — which tracks media-reported residential fire fatalities — found seven of the eight victims were women. Six of those range in age between 61 and 73, although one woman’s age was not known but is believed to be 65 and up. The seventh woman who died was 53.
The causes of each fire are still under investigation, which can take weeks or months to complete.
Four of the fatal fires occurred in Phoenix. One each happened in Mesa, Scottsdale, Bullhead City, and Cochise County. Two were in apartments, and one each in a condominium and a duplex.
The most recent occurred Monday morning near 59th Avenue and Osborn Road. According to the Phoenix Fire Department, crews were battling the blaze when the son of a 73-year-old woman came home and told them his mother was inside.
Phoenix Fire said the smoke alarms were working. However, it is believed the woman may have gotten out of bed and wandered around before collapsing. She was pronounced dead.
Phoenix Fire Capt. Kenny Overton said the similarities of the victims in Arizona comes at an alarm to the department. That is despite firefighters coming into contact with patients of all ages in fire incidents.
“In regards to older residents, it’s always a concern of ours that they have the ability to get out of their homes safely in the case of an emergency,” he said. “I don’t have specific information as to what older people may have said to our crews about their ability to exit their homes or if they struggle.”
However, Mr. Overton said older adults — and any adults, really — can best prepare themselves in the event of a fire by doing some simple things: make sure all smoke alarms are in date and in working order, close bedroom doors and the doors to any inhabited areas prior to going to sleep, and make sure there are clear pathways to the exits of the home.
Across the nation, between Jan. 1 and June 24, the USFA database shows 294 older adults (65 and older) have died as a result of house fires, accounting for 27.3% of the total deaths (1,075).
In widening the age range to adults age 60 and older, and in which their age is known, 339 have died in home fires. That accounts for 31.5% of all deaths.
The cause of the fire was known in 32 of the deaths for adults 65 and older. Smoking was No. 1 with 13 deaths. Electrical malfunction (8) and cooking (6) were next.
Across all ages, 99 deaths — or 9.2% of all deaths — had a cause of fire. Like with older adults, smoking (25), cooking (24), and electrical malfunction (23) are the top three causes of fires leading to death in the nation.
Among some of the stories, a man of unknown age died outside an Ohio nursing home when his wheelchair caught fire while smoking and using an oxygen tank. A 68 year-old woman in Connecticut died from smoke inhalation during a fire in her home caused by smoking in bed.
In Washington state, an 81-year-old man died during a condo fire as result of a candle igniting a couch. And a 93 year-old man died during a dwelling fire after his Arkansas home was struck by lightning.
While not included in the stats above, six people — two adults over 30 and four children between 10 months and 7 years old — died in a fire Tuesday morning at a Wisconsin home. Two people escaped.
“Any fire that includes a deceased victim is regarded as a high-stress incident in our dispatch system and the members are offered resources to help them with the stresses of these incidents,” he said. “These resources are numerous and include peer counseling, professional counseling, and time away from work if necessary.”
According to the National Fire Protection Association, home fires claim the lives of seven people each day. Home fire sprinklers can help eliminate these tragedies, the NFPA says, but legislative barriers and a general unawareness of this technology have prevented its use in new homes.
“The alarming number of home fire deaths and injuries each year should be on the radar of every decision maker and member of the media,” stated Lorraine Carli, NFPA Vice President of Outreach and Advocacy and HFSC President. “We hope to illuminate the fire problem and its solution on a national scale.
“Fire sprinklers have been a U.S. model building code requirement since 2009, yet challenges to its adoption still exist,” she continued. “Taking action collectively will send a powerful message that fire sprinklers are widely accepted and must be embraced in every state.”
The NFPA says taking action is easy. Some possible activities include: hosting a side-by-side live burn/fire sprinkler demonstration or conducting a fire department open house featuring fire sprinkler information and sprinkler riser display.
According to the NFPA, the risk of dying in a home fire decreases by about 85% if sprinklers are present. And when sprinklers were present, fires were kept to the room of origin 97% of the time.
With the Fourth of July next week, grilling and overall cooking is likely to increase. Peak months for grilling fires are July, followed by June, May, and August.
The NFPA says between 2013 to 2017, fire departments responded to an annual average of 10,200 home fires involving grills, hibachis, or barbecues, including about 4,500 structure fires and 5,700 outside or unclassified fires.
Those fires resulted in an annual average of 10 civilian deaths, 160 civilian injuries, and $123 million in direct property damage.
The leading causes of home grilling fires include failing to properly clean the grill, leaks or breaks, and having a flammable object too close to the grill. Unattended cooking is a major cause of all types of cooking fires, including grill fires. Leaks and breaks are a particular problem with gas grills.
As the second half of 2019 approaches, Mr. Overton offered a few more tips for safety around the house.
“Don’t let juveniles play with matches or lighters, have a working extinguisher in the house, have working smoke alarms in the home, make sure there are clear pathways to the entrance and egress points of the home.”