The Piscataquis County town of Milo celebrated the opening of the Milo Heritage Building on Valentine’s Day, 4 ½ years after an arsonist set fire to the downtown. The catastrophic fire caused property and content losses totalling in the millions, destroying a flower shop, arcade, former theater, hardware store and pub. The blaze reminded Maine residents how quickly fire can consume livelihoods in comparison to how much energy and time it takes to rebuild.
The best way to fight fires is with prevention. Firefighters have a limited amount of time to get to a home — where most fires and fire fatalities occur — to save the building and rescue occupants. Average survivability times, which measure how long someone has to live from the moment of ignition to the time escape becomes impossible — have decreased in the last 30 years, possibly due to lightweight construction, and greater use of plastics and flammable furnishings, according to the latest Maine Fire Marshal’s Office newsletter. So averting the fires in the first place is obviously key.
Prevention can mean a number of things, such as ensuring that buildings are constructed with built-in safety features or that older buildings get a fire safety inspection. Public awareness is essential, too, because ultimately only homeowners can ensure that their smoke detectors are working properly.
The country has seen the results of fire prevention tactics, which include automatic sprinklers, less flammable cigarettes, updated building codes and computer programs that can predict how different products will react to fire. The number of fires has been cut by more than half since the 1980s, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Fire detectors have played a significant role. By 2003, 95 percent of U.S. homes had smoke alarms, compared with 22 percent in 1977, causing the fire-related death toll to decline by 46 percent, according to the Public/Private Fire Safety Council.
But improvements are still needed; 23 people died in Maine because of fires in 2011. Smoke detectors are a clear solution: The small percentage of homes in the U.S. that don’t have smoke alarms accounts for about 40 percent of reported home fires and nearly half of all reported home fire deaths. But just because a home has a smoke detector doesn’t mean it’s functioning; an estimated 20 percent of U.S. homes have smoke alarms present but none that are working, mainly because of dead or missing batteries.
With 23 fires reported in Maine the week of Jan. 21, and an additional nine the following week, we add our voice to those of fire chiefs and fire professionals across the state: Check your smoke alarm battery. Thirty-percent of residential fires in Maine in 2011 started when someone was cooking, so keep watch when you’re making meals. The largest percentage of fires — about 38 percent — originated with a heating source, so schedule a regular chimney check, and don’t store flammable materials near your wood stove. The greatest percentage of people dying in Maine fires can be traced back to cigarette use, so properly dispose of your smoking material.
Remember, those at greatest risk of fire could be you or your loved ones: The Maine Fire Marshal’s Office reports that the elderly are at greatest risk. Children are also particularly vulnerable to fires in their homes. With most Maine fire fatalities occurring in the winter, now is the time to be extra vigilant.