A home fire can be devastating. We take a look at the most common causes and the most likely victims.
A home fire is one of the most devastating events for a person to endure — especially if it involves the loss of a loved one. From October 2012 to February 2016, the U.S. Fire Administration’s database of home fire fatalities in the news reveals that more than 8,000 people died in home fires in the U.S.
We researched which states and cities experience them most frequently, looked at the most likely victims, and examined the common causes. We also compiled some simple fire safety tips that could make a difference in your home.
Deaths Across the U.S.
In the past 3.5 years, home fires caused more than 8,000 deaths across the country — but some states were more affected than others. The No. 1 state, West Virginia, saw almost 6.8 fire deaths per 100,000 residents — 12.5 times as many as last-place Utah. Second-place Alaska was home to 6.1, third-place Alabama saw 5.4 and Kentucky and Maine completed the top five.
Why is West Virginia so prone to home fire fatalities? The most common cause is smoking — and West Virginia has the highest percentage of adults who smoke in the nation: nearly 27 percent. The risky habit is only compounded by the state’s high prevalence of mobile homes and the frequent use of alternate heat sources such as wood and kerosene.
Additionally, West Virginia is the third-most rural state in the country, according to the Census Bureau — which means fewer firefighters (many of whom are volunteers) and delays in emergency response time.
The high rate of fire fatalities can also be attributed to the high percentage of at-risk population. West Virginia has the highest percentage of the U.S. population with a disability — 20.2 percent, which is more than twice as high as the state with the lowest percentage, Utah, at 9.5 percent. Additionally, nearly 18 percent of West Virginians are over age 65 — the third-highest percentage of 65-plus residents in the country.
Interestingly, the top five states for the most home fire deaths per 100,000 residents all rank above average for percentage of residents who smoke — Alaska is No. 15, Alabama No. 11, Kentucky No. 3 and Maine No. 22.
Examining the Senior Population
Older adults face the highest risk of dying in a home fire compared with people of other ages. In 2013, seniors suffered 36 percent of fire deaths in the U.S. though they only represented 14 percent of the population. People aged 65 to 74 had 1.8 times the risk of dying compared with the general population, those aged 75 to 84 were 3.3 times likelier, and people aged 85-plus were 3.6 times likelier. Smoking is the most common cause of fires that lead to fatalities of elderly people.
The heightened risk for elderly people can be attributed to a variety of reasons, such as difficulties with mobility, decreased hearing or eyesight, the possibility of using medical oxygen, difficulty hearing a smoke alarm, the relatively high percentage (28 percent) of elderly people who live alone and side effects caused by medications.
Hawaii saw the highest percentage: Over half of people killed in home fires (9 of the 17) were 65 or older. North Dakota took the No. 2 spot (almost 47 percent), followed by Nebraska, Montana and Arizona. On the other hand, Wyoming had no known deaths among the senior population. South Dakota saw the second-lowest percentage of senior fire fatalities (12.5 percent), followed by New Mexico, Delaware and Washington, D.C.
Making a plan to promote fire safety is especially important for older adults. Frequently test smoke alarms to ensure they’re working. Never smoke in bed or after taking medications that cause sleepiness. Keep heaters 3 feet away from flammable items, and turn them off before leaving the house. Additionally, customize an escape plan based on abilities: Some seniors may need to ensure quick access to a cane, wheelchair, hearing aid or glasses to enhance their ability to escape a burning home as quickly as possible.
How Are Children Affected?
Thanks partly to fire education and prevention efforts, fewer children die in home fires now compared with a decade ago. Children are actually less likely to die in fires than the rest of the population. The top cause for fires that resulted in the death of children was electrical malfunction.
In South Dakota, six children have died in home fires in the time of our analysis, which represents 25 percent of fire fatalities in the state during that time. Three of those deaths occurred in a single house fire in Rapid City in 2012. In Missouri and Maryland, just over 19 percent of deaths were children, in Colorado almost 19 percent were kids and in Iowa 17.5 percent were children. On the other hand, Vermont and North Dakota tied for lowest percentage, followed by Rhode Island, New Jersey, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Taking some simple steps can promote fire safety for children. Formulate (and practice) a fire escape plan, and designate a meeting place. Every room should have two clear exits. Also, keep matches and lighters out of reach, and teach children not to play with them.
Top Cities and Seasons
Certain cities across the country see more home fire fatalities than others, based on population. Syracuse, New York, tops the list, with almost 12.5 per 100,000 residents. Most occurred in autumn. Macon, Georgia, had nearly 12.4 per 100,000 residents (the majority in summer and winter), and Birmingham, Alabama, had almost 12.3 (the majority in winter).
Why are some cities more at risk? Many factors come into play, including climate, poverty, education and demographics. Syracuse has an extremely high poverty rate. Many neighborhoods have crumbling or abandoned homes, and overcrowding is an issue in many homes as well. In one tragic case, a 13-year-old girl died after a fire caused by candles that were used to heat and light the apartment, which had no electricity.
The No. 2 city, Macon, also has a high poverty rate. A 2015 duplex fire in a public housing neighborhood, which was caused by a child playing with a lighter, killed a 7-year-old Macon boy. Birmingham, the No. 3 city, launched an initiative in 2003 to give out free smoke detectors in hopes of reducing fire deaths.
In general, home fires occur most often in the winter. Cold weather sparks an increase in heating-related fires, as people more frequently rely on space heaters, wood stoves and fireplaces. Holiday decorations, including lights, candles and Christmas trees can also contribute to fire risk.
A Look at the Top City
Syracuse, New York, saw 18 home fire deaths in the time of our analysis — a higher proportion per population than any other city. Notably, only half of fires in Syracuse occurred in houses; 44 percent were in apartments and 6 percent in vacant homes. The deadliest fire, which was started by a gas stovetop, killed three family members (including an infant) and injured five others. The vast majority are listed as under investigation.
Analyzing the 16 Worst Fires
In the time of our analysis, the U.S. has seen 16 devastating home fires that killed six or more people. The deadliest occurred in Greenville, Kentucky. Nine people (a mother and eight children) died in the blaze that engulfed the house. Officials later said it was caused when combustible material fell against a baseboard heater. The second-deadliest fire occurred in New York City in 2014, when a gas explosion leveled two buildings, resulting in eight deaths.
Four fires caused seven deaths each: In Brooklyn, New York, a malfunctioning hot plate caused a fire that killed seven children in 2015. In Lowell, Massachusetts, four adults and three children died when flames engulfed a three-story apartment building in 2014. Seven people (including five young children and a pregnant woman) died in a 2013 house fire in Gray, Kentucky. And a 2013 fire that broke out on a kitchen stove killed seven people (including four children) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In five of the fires above, a smoke detector was not present or not working. Only one case had a present and working fire alarm.
What's the Most Frequent Cause in Each State?
A variety of factors can spark deadly home fires. In 20 states across the U.S. — including much of the West — smoking is the No. 1 cause. Electrical malfunction is the main culprit in 10 states (including three in the South and three in the Northeast). Cooking is the top reason in five states. Heating alone, as well as in combination with other factors, is the No. 1 reason in seven states.
The Overall Percentage of Each Cause
Fatalities Over Time
The time-lapse map above tracks home fire fatalities from October 2012 until February 2016. Each dot represents a single death, and the dots are color coded by cause. You can see fires occur most frequently in the Eastern half of the country, as well as along the West Coast. The majority of fatalities are attributed to unknown causes.
The number of home fire fatalities has seen a downward trend during the past 14 years — but that doesn’t mean we can be lax about fire prevention. Especially in certain states and cities, it’s clear we must do more to decrease home fires.
You can start at home. Ensure your smoke alarms are working, and make a comprehensive fire escape plan with your family. To reduce the risk of cooking fires, clean your stove and oven regularly, never leave cooking food unattended, keep flammable items away from heat sources, and position pot handles toward the back of the stove.
To minimize the risk of electrical fires, check cords regularly to ensure they’re in good condition, ensure plugs don’t feel warm, and remove dryer lint frequently. If you smoke, do so outside rather than in your home, always fully extinguish cigarettes, and never smoke in bed. To cut down on the chance of home heating fires, have your fireplace or wood stove inspected and swept every year, and have your chimney cleaned every other year.
If you could use a hand taking care of some of these tasks, join Angie’s List to find highly rated professionals, including electricians, certified service professionals who can clean and inspect your dryer, and chimney cleaning and repair professionals.
We scraped the U.S. Fire Administration’s database of home fire fatalities in the news from Oct. 1, 2012 (earliest date available) to Feb. 29, 2016, on March 1, 2016. Information on home fire deaths was compiled through a daily Internet search (Monday–Friday) of U.S. news media reports. For population numbers, we used the U.S. Census 2014 Population Estimates. If 2014 was not available for a particular city, we used the most recent year instead.
We calculated total home fire fatalities in the news per 100,000 residents by including cities with at least 100,000 residents and at least five fatalities since October 2012. For the seasons, fatalities occurring December through February were categorized as Winter; March through May fatalities were categorized as Spring; June through August fatalities were categorized as Summer; and September through November fatalities were categorized as Fall.
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