It was a tragic start to 2018 in Alexandria, Minn., where three people died in fires in early January, contributing to one of the deadliest winter fire seasons in Minnesota in years.
But as 2018 comes to an end, the number of fire deaths statewide has dropped to its lowest total in nearly a decade, fire officials say.
As of last week, 36 people had died in fires in 2018 — the lowest annual number of fire deaths since 2009, according to preliminary figures compiled by the state.
In 2017, 68 people died in Minnesota house fires, the highest number of fatalities in 20 years.
“It’s trending the right way,” State Fire Marshal Bruce West said of 2018.
The drop, he said, could be partly due to increased education and awareness efforts by the state’s 775 fire departments.
“We think they’ve stepped it up even more. And I think the citizens are listening,” West said, adding that his office also uses social media more to share fire safety messages such as a recent video that shows how a dry Christmas tree burns faster than one that’s watered daily.
The Red Cross also ramped up efforts this year to distribute free smoke alarms statewide as part of its national Home Fire campaign. Volunteers installed more than 5,800 free smoke detectors across Minnesota in 2018 — part of more than 20,000 installed over the past five years. (To request a free smoke alarm, call 612-460-3674 or go to soundthealarm.org/mn.)
“We know more homes out there don’t have working smoke alarms,” said Jason Bengtson, the Red Cross regional disaster officer. “It’s all about saving lives.”
The organization responds to about 550 fires each year in Minnesota. Just this month, it responded to three large apartment fires that displaced dozens of residents in the metro area and in the southwestern Minnesota city of Redwood Falls, Bengtson said.
Nationally, the Red Cross has set a goal of reducing the number of fire deaths by 25 percent by 2020.
Minnesota law requires smoke alarms in all residential buildings, including mobile homes. Residents also should test smoke alarms to ensure they work and come up with a plan in case there’s a fire, Bengtson said.
While 2018 is on pace to end with fewer fire deaths than a year ago, West said he’s well aware that the winter months, particularly during the holiday season when people do more cooking and tend to light more candles, can be the most dangerous.
Last year in Minnesota, 17 people died in fires in November and December alone — the highest number for those two months since 1995, according to West’s office. And seven of those deaths came in the final 12 days of the year.
“We’re entering into a very deadly time,” West said. “One fire fatality is too many. We can never let our guard down.”
The risk of house fires doesn’t drop once the calendar turns. Last winter, 11 people died in fires from Jan. 1 to March 20, contributing to the second highest winter-season fire death toll — 28 — in a decade.
On average, 21 people die in house fires each winter, according to the fire marshal’s office.
West said the leading causes of fires are cooking and heating, though the primary cause of fatal fires is careless smoking.
The number of fires — fatal and nonfatal — in Minnesota has actually dropped in recent years, from 6,429 structure fires in 2012 to 6,165 in 2017. But fires have become deadlier because building materials burn faster.
“This isn’t a metro issue. It’s not a greater Minnesota issue. It’s a Minnesota issue,” West said. “This is the time of year we want to make sure everyone is safe.”