By Dave Boucher
The Charleston Daily Mail
CARLESTON, W. Va. — The number of annual fire deaths in the United States has been cut in half since 1980, and while the number also has gone down in West Virginia, the state's incidence has remained significantly higher than the national average.
From 1980 to 1984, an average 23 of 1 million Americans died annually in house fires, according to data from the National Fire Protection Association. In West Virginia, the rate was 33 per million for that period.
In 2008, the last year for which data is available, the national average had dropped to 12 of every 1 million. The state average had dropped as well, but at 23.7 per million, remained much higher than the national mark, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
Carol Nolte, public education officer for the West Virginia Fire Commission, can't explain why.
"That's a good question," she said. "That's one I've thought about over and over again."
There have perennially been more people who smoked, who lived in poverty or who had low levels of education in West Virginia, Nolte said. Those are three big factors tied statistically to residential fires.
State officials also have recognized the need for more public fire safety education.
A January report by the Legislative Auditor's Office found that the fire commission has not devoted more resources to education despite recommendations that it do so.
"In the final analysis, the current level of Commission resources devoted to public education and awareness has suffered since 2004 and is not significantly more than in 2000," the report states.
Nolte said about $81,000 a year has been dedicated to education efforts. But those funds do not cover employee salaries and benefits.
In the 13 years Nolte has been the public education officer, she has been the sole non-clerical fire safety educator on the state level.
"It's all we can do in the face of really no personnel," Nolte said.
The legislative auditor's report states that even though the public education office received four additional employees in 2004, "It was reported that the (public education officer's) number of responsibilities made it difficult to increase the awareness of fire safety."
Nolte said other employees were there to answer the phone for several programs that have since been transferred to the Division of Homeland Security. Now she has one clerical assistant to help with the office website and press releases while she oversees five or six statewide programs.
While fire departments are also tasked with fire education, Nolte said they pay more attention to actually fighting fires and other obligations.
Right now it's up to her to coordinate a smoke detector distribution program and fire safety training for caretakers and other similar occupations, administer the fire-safe cigarette certification program and oversee four or five other programs.
"It still comes down to no personnel in the field . . . and that's just not adequate," Nolte said.
Along with her office's $81,000 operating budget, which does not include funding for the salaries of Nolte or her assistant, the department also received more than $71,000 to help with the fire-safe cigarette certification program.
"Although additional funds are available, they cannot be utilized" due to a lack of personnel, the report states.
Including the nine people who died two weeks ago in a house fire on Arlington Avenue on Charleston's West Side, there have been 54 deaths in West Virginia since July 1, Nolte said.
It's as many fatalities as she can remember in such a time span, she said.
Fire deaths have perpetually plagued West Virginia. For decades, the extenuating factors Nolte mentioned have cropped up time and time again as the source of fatal fires, according to Daily Mail records.
Five people — including Katie Cora Winston, 38, her son, Sammy, 3, and her daughter, Beatrice, 2 — died in December 1949 when a gas heater was placed too close to a wall in a rooming house on Court Street in downtown Charleston. The blaze came eight months after the Woolworth fire, in which seven firefighters died, also in downtown Charleston.
The five December deaths brought the total fire fatalities for Kanawha County that year to 25. There were 19 in Charleston alone, the most on record to that point.
At least 21 people died in house fires in 1960 throughout West Virginia, including at least four in Charleston. A lit cigarette was suspected in at least one death, while a buildup of gas from a pilot light on a stove was the likely cause of another. In McDowell County, 73 people were also left homeless when fire destroyed seven two-story frame houses in Upland.
State officials saw another rise in the already high number of fire fatalities in the late 1980s. Between July 1988 and June 1989, 85 people died in fires, while 66 died the previous fiscal year. Paul Gill, a state deputy fire marshal, said most started in kitchens, from people smoking in bed or from overloading extension cords.
There was a marked increase in fatalities due to arson that year as well, including seven people who died in a Fairmount apartment fire that the arsonist reportedly stayed to watch. That same year, a Dunbar man spilled gasoline on his father during an argument; lighting a cigarette near the man shortly thereafter, his father was set ablaze.
Arson made headlines again in the late 1990s when three Weston parents were accused of setting a house fire to recoup insurance money. None of the five children ages 3 to 10 who lived at the home survived, but all five adults living there made it safely out of the house.
Although federal prosecutors discussed pursuing the death penalty against Ricky Brown, his wife, Barbra, and their roommate, Janette Ables, all three avoided the sentence and pleaded to lesser offenses. Both Browns were released with time served at their 2001 trials, while Ables was sentenced in 2001 to three to 15 years of imprisonment on a child neglect charge.
Other large deadly fires in recent West Virginia history include a 2007 Huntington apartment fire that killed nine people and a 2008 Elkview fire that killed a woman, her boyfriend and two of their children.
A space heater is believed to have caused the Elkview fire, and the lack of a sprinkler system in the Huntington apartments prompted calls for making such systems mandatory in large-scale residential buildings.
The deadliest fire in West Virginia since 1899 came in December 1907, when 362 died in a coal mine fire, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
'A safety mindset'
In 1989, one of the state's peak years for fire fatalities, Deputy Fire Marshal Paul Gill said a lack of "good common sense on fire safety" played a large part in the death toll. In addition to people not having enough fire safety knowledge, he said the fire commission did not have the authority to inspect single-family homes.
Nearly 25 years later, Nolte echoed his statements.
"My main point is that neither one person at the state level nor 442 fire departments can or should be responsible for changing unsafe behavior," Nolte wrote in an email. "We can only reach people who are willing to cultivate a safety mindset!"
Her office distributed more than 3,100 smoke alarms between 2007 and 2011, according to the performance review.
She is advocating for more in-home sprinkler systems and helping to enforce a 2009 law that calls for only cigarettes with a "reduced ignition propensity" to be sold in the state.
It takes personal responsibility to ensure safety in each household, she said.
"I can't, as a deputy state fire marshal, come into your home and ask you why you're drying your socks on a space heater, or when is the last time you changed the batteries in your smoke alarms," Nolte's message said.
Nolte wouldn't speculate on whether the public education office would hire more employees, referring the question to another deputy fire marshal. That marshal said in an email he could not immediately comment.
Copyright 2012 Charleston Newspapers