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To prevent fire deaths, we must study them

Jan. 6, 2020

A house window damaged by fire and smoke
Two people died in April at this home in McGregor. A State Fire Marshal Division investigator says smoking caused the deadly blaze.

The beginning of a new year is a time to reflect on the past year and plan for the new one – hopefully to think about what we can improve upon, then make a plan to do just that in the coming year. For the State Fire Marshal Division (SFMD), unfortunately, this means thinking about deaths, specifically fire deaths.

Right now, for example, SFMD is totaling up the number of people who died in structure fires in Minnesota in 2019, and have come to a distressing conclusion: Preliminary numbers show that 42 people died in fires in 2019. That’s up 14 percent over 2018, when there were 37 fire deaths.

Although many of the fires are still under investigation, it’s beginning to look as if careless smoking was once again the leading cause of fire deaths in 2019. But such deaths are so easily avoided: smoke outside. Use a sturdy ashtray filled with sand or water. Don’t discard cigarettes in potted plants or any kind of vegetation. It’s also wise not to smoke while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. And never, ever smoke while on oxygen.

One of the reasons the SFMD collects data on number and cause of fires, fire deaths, and fire injuries is to learn from them. And to a certain extent, they have succeeded: the fire death rate in Minnesota has dropped 63 percent since the 1970s. But whether or not you have lost a loved one in a fire, you know that even one fire death is too many.

Keeping that in mind, the SFMD works with local fire departments to educate the public on fire safety and prevention, from aiding in family escape planning to advising on the proper care and placement of smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. Prevention tips are as varied as the causes of fires.

The numbers continually show the diversity of fires and fire victims. Fire’s ruthless lack of bias causes deaths in both metro and rural areas to people who are old, young, and in between – though we are seeing people over age 50 die more often than younger people. The fact is that each fire is different, and each victim has a different story cut tragically short by the flames and smoke. But the common thread connecting most of these fires is that they could have been prevented.

So in this new year, the SFMD and the Minnesota fire service will be working to keep Minnesota fire safe. They invite you to join them.