Fire destroyed a home on Watervale Road in late January 2011, one of several major fires in the year that claimed lives and destroyed property in Harford County. (MATT BUTTON, Aegis file photo / January 11, 2012)

For the second year in a row, three people died in fires in Harford County in 2011.

While there were years when there were fewer than the three fatalities of the past two years, that number is nowhere near the nine fire deaths in Harford County 2007.

The three who died — a Bel Air woman, a young man in Baldwin and a senior citizen in Forest Hill – all perished in house fires.

While the fatalities haven't increased, the number of high-damage fires has increased. Six house fires in 2011 caused damages upward of $400,000 with some reaching into the millions, compared to only four instances of similar amounts of damage in 2010.

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The most dangerous fire hazard in winter, according to fire officials, involves fireplaces, grills and other home heating elements.

"The number one issue we've seen a lot of in the last few years is improper disposal of fireplace ashes," Rich Gardiner, a spokesman for Harford County's volunteer fire and EMS companies, said.

Sometimes in the fall and leading into winter, residents continue to use their grills, he said. It's the improper disposal of charcoal and fireplace embers that can cause serious danger.

"What people do is they take these things [charcoal or embers] and put them in paper bags and put them on the deck or in their garage," he said. Those coals or embers can still be smoldering and cause a fire. The proper way to dispose of charcoal or fireplaces embers, Gardiner said, is to put them in a metal structure, saturate them in water and place them away from the home.

Gardiner said he has seen many fires in recent years caused by the improper fireplace ash disposal. In addition, he recommends all homeowners with a fireplace clean their chimneys and have them inspected by a professional to ensure there are no cracks or damage.

In case of a fire, Gardiner strongly suggests each home having a fire escape plan, complete with a place to meet outside. Properly working fire extinguishers and smoke detectors are also essential to being prepared in case of a fire.

The 2011 fatal fires

In February, 44-year-old Kathleen M. Ellis, of Bel Air, died at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air after being rescued from her burning home in the 1200 block of Kirby Circle in Bel Air.

Harford County emergency operations had dispatched the call to Ms. Ellis' home in after a 9-1-1 call disconnected. The female caller said that she "was raped today," then, "he's going to..." before the line went dead.

Investigators initially deemed the death suspicious, but determined in July that no foul play was involved. It was concluded that Ms. Ellis died from smoke inhalation. The accidental fire was caused by an electrical malfunction in a second-floor bedroom of the house that was owned by James Myers.

Several fires hit the county during a thunderstorm in late August, one resulting in the death of a 91-year-old man.

Richard F. Weisheit, died as a result of smoke inhalation and thermal burn injuries from the fire in his home in the 1800 block of Creston Drive in Forest Hill. Deputy fire marshals believe the fire started in the two-story home's basement kitchen, and caused an estimated $350,000 in damages.

Investigators found no evidence of working smoke alarms in the home.

Conner Daniel McKeown, 20, died in early November in a two-alarm house fire in 2700 block of Greene Lane in Baldwin. The fire took 50 firefighters from Harford and Baltimore counties almost two hours to get under control.

McKeown's father, Kevin McKeown, reported the fire. When he arrived at the house, smoke and flames were visible. McKeown, who went inside to look for his son, was treated for minor burn injuries.

There was an estimated $100,000 in damages.