As the weather turns cold, the threat of house fires rises. People spend more time indoors; they turn on portable space heaters or light fires in fireplaces or leave on stoves or ovens, and the risks naturally go up with the season. Open flames are a threat, but so are smoldering embers that produce poisonous carbon monoxide if not properly vented. Falling asleep with a cigarette in hand is a common cause of fatal fires, as are unattended children, who might be inclined to play with flames when there is no adult supervision. All such disasters are entirely preventable. That’s what makes house fires so maddening, so unnecessary, so tragic when they occur.
Among the sad examples is the Christmas Day death of 7-year-old Clinton Chimobi Ezeamaka, who was killed after a neighbor’s smoldering cigarette started a fire that raged through the boy’s Gwynn Oak apartment building. Earlier in the month, three other Baltimore fires displaced 10 people. And last month Janice Williams and her children Antwan and Aubrey Branch were killed in a fire that badly damaged their rowhouse on North Patterson Park Avenue in Broadway East. Mercifully, five other children ranging in ages from 2 to 15 in the home and one adult survived with the help of quick-thinking neighbors and firefighters.
We must all do our parts to prevent further such catastrophes; it starts with a fire safety checklist. Working smoke alarms should top that ledger, of course. It’s not only essential to check to make certain that batteries are functioning, but it may be time to upgrade the detectors. Under state law, every bedroom must have one, as should any common area and at least one of every level of the home. With some exceptions for older homes with hard-wired alarms, they should all be the sealed, 10-year lithium battery-powered variety.
The value of a smoke detector can’t be overstated. Working detectors are thought to reduce the fire fatality rate by 50%. Most fire-related deaths are from smoke inhalation, not from burns. And there is a reason why alarms are so loud. Experts suggest that people may have as little as two minutes from the sounding of a smoke alarm to safely exit a building. So checking on your smoke alarms is always the first step.
But next, families should have fire escape plans with two ways out of each room. Home fire drills should be practiced twice a year with a nearby spot selected for everyone to meet that is a safe distance away from the house, according to the National SAFE KIDS Campaign. There are also numerous safe practices: Unplug small appliances when not in use, burn only dry, seasoned firewood in the fireplace and never leave a candle burning when you leave a room, let alone go to bed. It is also essential to teach children not to play with matches or lighters.
Last year showed a decrease in fire deaths in Maryland with 51 statewide compared to 65 the previous year and 71 in 2018. Stricter rules on smoke detectors and a 9-year-old state law mandating sprinkler systems in new homes are believed to have played a role in this trend. Still, terrible things can happen. On average, fires kill about 500 U.S. children age 14 and under each year along with about 3,000 others. And a leading cause is simple carelessness. Checking on a battery, blowing out a candle, turning off a stove, keeping matches out of reach — none of these steps requires anything more from adults than good judgment and a bit of necessary attention to the serious risks posed by house fires, especially from now through February.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.