Non-working smoke detectors top reason for Maine fire deaths

On average 17 or 18 people die in Maine fires each year

By Bonnie Washuk
The Sun Journal

AUBURN, Maine — As Auburn firefighters visited the Park Avenue Elementary School on Tuesday, students were assigned to ask their parents questions, teacher Barbara Boulet said.

Does their home have a smoke detector, and does that smoke detector work? Students were also to ask about their family's fire escape plan.

October is National Fire Prevention Month. There's a good reason why, according to Maine's State Fire Marshal Office.

October is the start of the home fire season. Fires increase with the decline of daylight and onset of cold weather, senior research and planning analyst Richard Taylor said.

Typically Maine has 1,900 to 2,000 fires a year, 1,300 in homes. "Those are the ones we're most concerned about, the most dangerous ones," Taylor said. Most home fires happen between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

On average 17 or 18 people die in Maine fires each year. On March 4 in Lisbon, two young sisters, Natalie Hogan, 11, and Kelsey Hogan, 6, died after being trapped in their bedroom when their home was on fire. The home did not have a working smoke detector, officials said.

Most who die in Maine fires are in a home without a smoke detector or one that works, officials said.

"It's a common problem we run into," Auburn Deputy Fire Chief Geoff Low said. "They take the battery out of the smoke detector when it goes off," because someone's burnt something, or steam from a shower sets it off. Too often they neglect to put a fresh battery back, Low said.

When investigating a fatal fire, learning the smoke detector wasn't working "is awful frustrating," Taylor said.

The second most common fire fatality reason is people can't get out of homes because of too much clutter. That's especially true in the homes of elderly Mainers, Taylor said.

Whether the escape route is a door or a window, the path has to be clear. A window isn't a good escape route if there's a bureau in front of it, Taylor said.

The good news is that more homes have working smoke detectors, and that has contributed to a reduction in Maine's fire fatality rate, Taylor said.

"In the 1980s and '90s our fire fatality rate was in the top 20. Now it's below the national average. We're at 1.3 percent per 100,000."

Fire officials recommend smoke detectors be tested frequently; detectors 10 years old or older be replaced; and fresh batteries be installed when the clocks are turned forward in the spring, and back in the fall. This year Daylight Savings ends Nov. 6.

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