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Conn. sees 15 dead in fires in first months of 2024

The state’s number of fatal fires makes the start of 2024 the deadliest year in a decade

BY Christine Dempsey
New Haven Register

HARTFORD, Conn. — Fifteen people were killed in fires in the first two months of 2024 in Connecticut, making it the most deadly start to the year in at least a decade, according to data from state fire officials.

“A couple of years, we’ve had starts like this,” said Roger Nelson, a Bloomfield fire marshal and vice president of the Connecticut Fire Marshals Association. “But this seems to be one after another after another.”

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From Somers in the north to East Lyme in the southeast, there were 11 deadly fires in January and February, according to the Office of the State Fire Marshal. The number of deaths is by far the largest in that time period since 2015 and almost five times the nine-year average of 3.2 deaths, according to data obtained by CT Insider.

Those who died ranged in age from 5 to 95. A man found dead after a fire ravaged his Chaplin home was determined to have died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound and is not included in the grim tally.

Eight of the deaths happened in January, when there was a double-fatal fire in East Lyme and four children died in Somers. Two of the deaths happened within five hours of each other in different parts of the state, one in Plainfield and one in Bloomfield.

The fires are not believed to be connected, but some happened under similar circumstances. All but one — a deadly car fire in Meriden — were in homes. Most deadly fires happen where people live, and there generally are more house fires in the winter, when people spend more time indoors and turn on the heat, fire officials say.

But there were far fewer fires at the start of other calendar years.

In 2023, there were two fire deaths during the first two months of the year, both in February, according to the state fire marshal’s office. In January and February 2022, there were six, a nine-year high. The state fire marshal obtained the data from the Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit of the Connecticut State Police, which sends investigators to the scenes, according to John McKay, a spokesperson with the state Department of Administrative Services.

About half of the fatal house fires this year happened at night or in the early morning hours, when people tend to be sleeping and fires can smolder undetected, especially if there are no working smoke detectors.

That appears to be the case in East Lyme, where a 95-year-old man and his live-in caretaker died on Jan. 12 . A neighbor smelled smoke as early as 5 a.m., but didn’t know where it was coming from, Police Chief Michael Finkelstein said. The fire wasn’t discovered until a school bus driver saw it shortly after 8 a.m.

Unlike the East Lyme house, a Somers home where a fire killed four children on Jan. 2 did have working smoke detectors, according to John Roache, the town’s fire chief and fire marshal.

Some of the older siblings apparently had headphones on and didn’t hear the alarms, Roache said.

They were alerted by the youngest boy, 5-year-old Archer, the family wrote in his obituary.

“He saved lives that night,” the obituary said.

There were other factors that kept the children from quickly escaping the fast-moving flames, too, Roache said. When the children tried to get out, their path was blocked by either the fire itself or a kitchen table that was in front of the back door, he said.

The oldest sibling, a 19-year-old, jumped out a second-floor window to escape the flames, he said.

Alan Zygmunt, a program manager at the Connecticut Fire Academy and retired battalion chief for the Southington Fire Department, said every home should have working smoke detectors, and “they should be loud enough to wake people up and get them the warning that they need.”

He also said homeowners should change the batteries twice a year, during the upcoming return to Daylight Saving Time on Sunday when clocks are moved forward one hour and when they are switched back in the fall.

It is now state law that every house has them, even older houses, Nelson said. He said they should be tested once a month.

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Fire officials also said a home’s doors should never be blocked, even temporarily, and every family should plan and discuss how they would escape a fire. Family members also should agree on a meeting place outside the home, officials said.

Despite such planning, people often don’t use logic when their house is on fire. They may be frightened or affected mentally from the chemicals emitted by the fire, the officials said.

“Carbon monoxide can interfere with rational thought,” Zygmunt said. Investigators have found evidence that fire victims sometimes do things “that are just odd,” like moving toward the flames, he said.

A man who died after his Windsor house burned on Jan. 1 apparently was trying to douse the flames himself for hours before he and a neighbor who joined the effort called 911, according to Windsor Fire Inspector Dick Shea.

“We have reason to believe that they were trying to put out the fire for up to three hours before they called 911,” Shea said. The neighbor survived, but the homeowner died on Jan. 9, according to his obituary.

Roache said people should always call 911 first, even if a fire seems small enough to put out themselves.

“Call 911. Call us, get us started,” Roache said. No firefighter is going to be mad that he or she arrives at the scene and finds that the fire was already out, he said.

This is especially important in smaller towns that have volunteer departments. They don’t have fully staffed fire stations, and it takes longer for them to arrive at the scene with equipment, Roache said.

Anyone who tries to tackle a small fire themselves also should make sure they have a path out of their home, Roache said. Some have been known to run deeper into the burning house to get a pot of water, with no easy way out, he said.

After calling 911, Nelson said, the best advice is to “get out and don’t go back in. Once you’re out of the house, stay out of the house.”

He also said people should be careful not to walk away from food cooking on the stove, another common cause of house fires. A Bristol fire victim on Feb. 22 was found in the kitchen of her ranch-style home, although it’s not clear if she was cooking at the time.

Zygmunt said homeowners should also be sure to maintain heating equipment and anything else that produces heat, including ovens and stoves.

“Anything you use for heat should be maintained annually. Not only is it a benefit for fire safety, but it’s benefit for efficiency,” he said. “A maintained furnace is going to run more efficiently.”

Portable heaters should have 3 feet of clearance around them, Nelson said. Newer heaters have more safety features than older ones, he said.

Nelson also said ash from fireplaces should be placed in a metal container and kept outside, a distance from the home, he said.

Smoking in bed and candles also have caused past deadly fires in Connecticut. Fire officials stress that candles and smoking materials should be fully extinguished when they’re no longer being used.

The causes of this year’s fatal fires are still under investigation, a process that usually takes months and involves local and state fire investigators, as well as insurance companies.

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In the case of the Somers fire, which Roache said started in an area at the bottom of the stairs where electronics were plugged in, insurance company engineers were expected to conduct thorough laboratory examinations to try to determine who, if anyone, was responsible.

It’s difficult for fire officials to determine why there were so many fatal fires this year when they don’t know for sure what caused them. But at least one department is stepping up its preventative work.

New Britain, which had three deadly fires this year and a double-fatal blaze in December, activated its Quick Strike program, through which firefighters canvass the neighborhoods where serious fires broke out, said Rachel Zaniewski, spokesperson from the office of Mayor Erin Stewart. The two people who died in the Dec. 18 fire were trapped in an illegal apartment, city records show.

The firefighters educate residents on fire safety by encouraging them to have smoke alarms installed and by answering their questions, Zaniewski said.

“It’s a way to be proactive,” she said, “and allows firefighters to familiarize themselves with neighborhoods and the makeup of individual homes.”

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