2018-01-25 / Front Page

Fire Tragedies Prove Winter Raises Risks

By Jocelyn O’Neil

Firefighters' quick response to a Jan. 2 blaze, at 419 Broadway, helped to minimize the property damage. (Photo by Kirby Varacalli) Firefighters' quick response to a Jan. 2 blaze, at 419 Broadway, helped to minimize the property damage. (Photo by Kirby Varacalli) As the winter months keep residents indoors for longer stretches of time, local fire marshals are urging the public to remain vigilant about fire safety. Three tragedies for Aquidneck Island residents over the past year illustrate how easy it is to fall victim to unprecedented loss due to home fires.

On Dec. 15, 2017, a 70-yearold man was killed and his wife injured when their Newport condominium in the Bridgeview complex caught fire. At 4:30 a.m., smoke and flames were reported coming from the home’s kitchen. Residents of the complex were evacuated safely and no injuries were reported. The fire is believed to have started in the kitchen. No smoke detector was found in the home, and there have been no reports from neighbors of hearing a smoke detector going off.

Five days later, the Peabody family of Middletown lost their home and cat when a fire broke out. This fire is also believed to have originated in the kitchen, as is the case with the Bridgeview condominium fire.

In the early evening hours of Jan. 2, 2018, a two-alarm fire severely damaged 419 Broadway in Newport. At around 5:45 p.m., the first-floor tenants saw flames outside and below their bathroom window, coming from where the electrical meters are located. Within minutes, the fire had spread to all three levels of the building. No injuries were reported, though the fire displaced the residents and damaged their belongings.

Investigations into the origin of these house fires are still pending. However, either cooking, electrical outlet overload, poor maintenance of heating equipment or a combination of all three are statistically the likely catalysts, according to a 2017 report by the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA).

Cooking is cited as the leading cause of home fire deaths and in- juries, and the leading cause of the cooking fires themselves is leaving the stove unattended. Overall, cooking equipment was involved in almost half (47 percent of reported home fires, 20 percent of home fire deaths and 45 percent of reported home fire injuries, based on 2011-2015 annual averages, provided by the NFPA. Also noted in the report was that nearly half (48 percent) of all home heating fires occurred in December, January and February.

But cooking is not the only culprit in wintertime house fires. “People are home more in the winter, especially during a ‘cold snap.’ [They] are going to try and compensate with an alternative heating source," said Middletown Fire Department’s Fire Marshal Robert McCall. “The improper use and the lack of maintenance of heating equipment result in more than half the fire deaths in the United States,” he said.

For example, some people will leave their oven on or oven door open overnight, to heat their homes, he said.

Newport Fire Department’s Fire Marshal Wayne Clark said that if residents are mindful of their remaining holiday decorations and appliance use, risk of fire can be dramatically reduced. “This time of year, electrical outlet overload is a major issue,” said Clark. “People will plug in too many appliances per electrical outlet without knowing what they are doing,” he said, citing the NFPA study’s claim that electrical distribution or lighting equipment was involved in two of every five Christmas tree fires.

A small flame can lead to a major disaster in a matter of minutes. “Prevention is the key,” said McCall. “Smoke detectors are the number one life-saving device when it comes to fire, but, tragically, many people dismantle or don’t notice the batteries are dead till it’s too late.”

Fire Safety Tips from the Fire Marshals

. Install smoke detectors. Smoke detectors are your number one defense against fires. Make sure each level of your house and especially outside bedrooms have a smoke and carbon monoxide detector. Smoke alarms can give early warning of fires and products of combustion, but only if they have a good power source and are checked regularly for proper operation. Property owners with renters: instruct residents to test them once a month and have the adults include the entire family in this exercise. Family members who are familiar with the sound of a smoke or carbon monoxide alarm will be less disoriented if awakened by them.

. Have a practiced fire escape plan. “Only a third of households have a planned exit strategy,” said Middletown Fire Marshal Robert McCall. “Encourage families to practice a home escape plan that includes meeting at a predetermined place a safe distance from the home. Have two escape routes in case one of your planned exits is blocked by snow this time of year.”

. Closely monitor cooking areas and equipment. “Be mindful of cooking areas and equipment,” said Newport Fire Marshal Wayne Clark. Cooking is the leading cause of fires nationwide.

. Keep driveways, walkways, vents and neighborhood fire hydrants clear of snow. “In Middletown alone, there are over 400 hydrants. Firefighters do their best to dig them all out, but with calls for emergency service and the small [number] of firefighters on duty, this can take two to three days to accomplish,” said McCall. “In that time, if there is a fire and that hydrant hasn’t been cleared, it could slow firefighting operations.”

. Perform yearly cleaning and maintenance. “When cleaning a chimney or a wood-burning stove is neglected, it’s not just another factor that increases the risk of fire,” said Middletown Fire Inspector Lt. Robert Hargis. “There is also an increased threat of carbon monoxide poisoning. This can occur from the use of stoves to heat homes, and vents for dryers, furnaces, stoves and fireplaces being blocked by snow or debris,” he said. Old electric blankets that have been folded and stored throughout the year should be used with caution, as the electrical wiring could be damaged. Chimneys, including those used for wood stoves, should be cleaned once a year to prevent the collection of flammable debris.

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