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Fire fatalities still happen but becoming less common

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Published:   |   Updated: August 20, 2014 at 06:53 AM

Hillsborough County firefighters rush to hundreds of house fires every year, but it's fairly rare to find lifeless victims inside like happened Monday afternoon.

That fire at 4627 Burkett Circle in Town 'N Country claimed the lives of Virginia Jones, 71, and her 51-year-old daughter, Michelle Hayes, who tried unsuccessfully to get her mother out. Both bodies were found in the home.

State and county fire investigators continued their probe into the fire on Tuesday, though no cause was determined and few details were released. The origin of the blaze did not appear to be suspicious, said Larry McKinnon with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

The trend of people killed in house fires has been dropping for decades, the result of a combination of factors, including the abundance of smoke alarms in homes, increased awareness of the dangers of fire and building codes that now require some home-building materials to be flame resistant.

According to the Florida State Fire Marshal's Office, 99 people died in Florida house fires in 2012, the most recent statistics available. That year, 932 people were injured by fires, 752 of them in house fires. In Hillsborough County, 11 people died in house fires in 2012, second only to Miami-Dade County, which recorded 15 deaths.

Across the nation, the number of people dying in house fires has been on a steady decline for nearly 40 years.

In 2012, 2,380 people died in residential fires in the United States. Though that averages just over seven people a day, the total is the lowest it's been since the National Fire Protection Association began compiling records in 1977. That year, more than 5,000 people perished in house fires, the association says.

According to a report compiled by the association in 2013, 25 percent of all home fire deaths “was caused by fires that started in the bedroom; another 24 percent resulted from fires originating in the living room, family room or den; and 16 percent was caused by fires starting in the kitchen.

“Three out of five home fire deaths resulted from fires in which no smoke alarms were present or in which smoke alarms were present but did not operate,” the report said. “Compared to other age groups, older adults were more likely to be killed by a home fire.”

Marty Ahrens, who wrote the 127-page report for the Quincy, Mass.-based association, said there were a number of reasons why the number of fatal fires is dropping, “including early warning systems like smoke alarms, which is a big deal; and we've gotten tighter with codes and standards. The products are safer. They're now protecting us from ourselves. “Coffee makers shut themselves off,” she said, “and some irons do the same thing.''

“There's still a lot more to be done,” she said. “We want to see residential sprinklers in new construction. People would be amazed at how fast a fire can turn deadly.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, deaths from fires are the third leading cause of fatal home injury, and the national mortality rate from fires is eighth among the 25 developed countries for which statistics are available.

“Although the number of fatalities and injuries caused by residential fires has declined gradually over the past several decades,” says the CDC website, “many residential fire-related deaths remain preventable and continue to pose a significant public health problem.''

Common sense is the best way to becoming a fire casualty, said Ahrens, with the National Fire Protection Association.

“People should have an escape plan,” she said. Quick escapes mean not having double-keyed bolts in doors and not putting an air conditioning unit into the bedroom window, which may be the only other way out if the door is blocked.

“A lot of things make perfect sense when you stop to think about it,” she said. “We try to remember to behave safely, but realistically, we are human beings and sometimes we make mistakes.”

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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