Safety officials warn of home fire risks

Placing combustible materials too close to heat sources is also a common cause of fire death.

More than half of the fire-related deaths that have occurred in Alaska this year have been people aged 60 or over, according to the latest information from Alaska’s Department of Public Safety.

This percentage is a significant increase when compared to previous years — in 2018, only 16% of the reported fire fatalities in Alaska were over 60, and in 2019 that number was 19%.

When asked about this increase, Virginia Lauer-McMichael, a fire training specialist with the Department of Public Safety, said in an email on Wednesday that Alaska has a relatively low number of fire-related deaths each year, so a small difference in the actual numbers can be reflected as a large percentage shift.

This year, there have been 12 fire-related fatalities in Alaska, Lauer-McMichael said. In 2019 there were 17, and in 2018 there were 11 deaths. Lauer-McMichael said that the four most recent fatalities this year have all been over the age of 65, and all four occurred in the last month.

One of those recent deaths was an elderly woman in Soldotna, whose residence caught fire on the morning of Nov. 14 on Onslow Street. Brooke Dobson, fire marshal with Central Emergency Services in Soldotna, said Wednesday that the Onslow fire also displaced three other families, and one person was injured while jumping from the building’s second story window.

Tim DeSpain, public information officer with DPS, said Wednesday that the medical examiner’s office has not yet identified the woman who died, but the cause of the fire was determined to be accidental. Lauer-McMichael said “careless smoking” was the cause of at least one of the four fires in the last month, while the other three are still under investigation.

The only other fire-related fatality to occur within the Kenai Peninsula Borough this year was in Nanwalek, when longtime educator Jim Reinseth died in a house fire on Oct. 13.

DeSpain said Wednesday that the cause of the Nanwalek fire was determined to be “incendiary,” which means a fire was deliberately ignited under circumstances where a person knows a fire should not be ignited. No foul play is suspected, however, and the medical examiner’s office is still working to determine Reinseth’s cause of death.

Lauer-McMichael and Dobson both said that careless smoking, specifically smoking while hooked up to an oxygen tank, is an issue that has killed or injured a number of elderly Alaskans both this year and in the past. Of the 12 fire fatalities to occur this year, at least four have been attributed to careless smoking. Smoking is the No. 1 cause of home fires that kill older adults in Alaska, according to DPS.

“If you’re on oxygen, don’t smoke in your home,” Dobson said. “It’s that simple.”

Placing combustible materials too close to heat sources is also a common cause of fire death, and at least two of the deaths reported this year have occurred this way.

Dobson said that the frequency of house fire calls that CES responds to increases starting in September, when people begin using their heat sources more regularly. Dobson recommended chimney cleaning at least once a year, and twice if the fireplace is used during the summer months. CES offers a chimney brush rental program where residents of the service area can come into the station and rent brushes that are appropriate for the dimensions of their chimney. CES will also assist elderly residents in testing their smoke and C02 detectors, which should be tested each month, Dobson said.

While the national recommendation is to change smoke detector batteries once a year, Dobson suggests doing it twice a year, just to be safe.

“All across Alaska, our fire departments are big proponents of ‘change your clocks, change your batteries,’” Dobson said, referencing Daylight Saving Time.

The Department of Public Safety offered these safety tips in light of the increase in fire deaths among seniors:

When smoking:

— Never smoke while lying down, drowsy or in bed.

— Use large, deep, tip-resistant ashtrays and place them on a flat surface.

— Wet cigarette butts and ashes before emptying them into the trash.

— Smoke outside, if possible.

— Never smoke near oxygen tanks.

When cooking:

— Keep an eye on what you fry.

— Wear short sleeves or roll them up.

— Move things that can burn away from the stove.

— Use oven mitts to handle hot pans.

— If a pan of food catches fire, slide a lid over it and turn off the burner.

When using a space heater:

— Keep the heater three feet away from anything that can burn.

— Unplug heaters when not in use.

— Consider buying heaters that are designed to turn off if tipped over.

When using a fireplace, wood stove or coal stove:

— Have professionals clean and inspect the fireplace or stove before use.

— Do not burn green wood, artificial logs, boxes or trash.

— Use a metal mesh fireplace screen to keep sparks inside.

— If your fireplace has glass doors, leave them open while burning a fire.

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Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at bmazurek@peninsulaclarion.com.

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