Minnesota saw a 14% increase in fire deaths in 2019 with 42 total deaths, compared to 37 in 2018. Fergus Falls also saw its first fire fatality since 2012 in September last year.
The leading cause of fatal fires in the state was smoking, making up for at least 16.7% of deaths, though Fergus Falls Fire Chief Ryan Muchow says the leading cause of home fires generally is unattended cooking. “The advice we give is, certainly if you’re cooking on a stovetop, make sure you stay within close proximity,” Muchow says. Frequently, fires in the kitchen start because people forget they are boiling something in water and all the water evaporates, leaving the product to burn, or overheating cooking oil. “Keep the temperature moderate, not on high, and stay in the kitchen while you’re cooking,” he says. People should also take care to keep items like oven mitts, aprons and paper towels at least 3 feet away from heat sources.
There were no working smoke alarms in 12% of last year’s fatal home fires. Smoke alarms should be tested regularly and replaced every 10 years. They’re helpful not only for waking people up during a fire, but also alerting people when the fire is not immediately noticeable. “A year and a half ago we had a fire that started in somebody’s basement. They kind of smelled smoke but it wasn’t until their smoke alarm went off that it alerted them that something was going on,” says Muchow. “That gives you your most optimal chance of getting out of your home, is when those smoke alarms are installed and functioning properly, and really the only way to know that is to test them regularly and then also replace them. They have about a 10-year expiration.”
Electrical fires, while rarer than smoking and cooking fires, are also a concern, especially if the home or business has older wiring. Overloading outlets is the most common cause behind electrical fires, as well as using extension cords for permanent wiring. Using power strips with built-in breakers, also called surge protectors, is one way to prevent overloading an outlet. Moving appliances to an existing outlet or hiring a qualified professional to wire a new outlet are options for preventing fires caused by extension cords. “We’ve seen it happen a fair amount where we may go into somebody’s home or business and the extension cord is running across the floor, people are walking across it throughout the day and it’s running, say, a refrigerator. We encourage people, certainly don’t use it that way. That’s a lot of load on what’s really meant to be a temporary wiring fix,” says Muchow.
Fire extinguishers are also an option for families to keep at home, but they should be easily accessible and in an area that won’t keep you in the same room as the fire for long. For instance, Muchow recommends keeping it just outside the kitchen so it can be sprayed while exiting the kitchen, rather than rummaging under the sink for it and putting yourself in a dangerous situation (fires can double in size every 60 seconds).
Be sure your family has an escape plan, especially if someone in the family has mobility needs, and make sure there are at least two ways out of each room (a window that can be opened and door, for example). While fire death rates in Minnesota have dropped 63% since the 1970s, it’s important to know how to practice fire safety and prevention.