More than 50 people died in fires in Minnesota last year, and for the fifth consecutive year careless smoking was the leading cause of death.

Last year's tally of 53 fire deaths was a 13% increase over 2019, and the most since 68 people died in fires in 2017, according to preliminary data released Tuesday by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS).

The final numbers will be released later this year once hospital officials report their information to the Minnesota Department of Health, DPS spokeswoman Jen Longaecker said.

Seven of last year's deaths were attributed to careless smoking, which tied a five-year low. That number could rise as investigators work to determine the cause of fires that resulted in a death. Last year 34 fires resulted in a death in which a cause has yet to be determined, Longaecker said.

Six people died last year in fires attributed to gas leaks, the second-leading cause of fire deaths in 2020. That was followed by five who died in cooking fires — the most since 2013. The state went three years without a death attributed to cooking from 2014 to 2016, then recorded three deaths each year from 2017 to 2019, DPS said.

People 50 and older accounted for nearly 70% of fire deaths, and 23% of those who died had alcohol in their system. Most deaths occurred in a residence or business, and one in five occurred in a building that did not have a working smoke detector, the data show.

To reduce fire risks, authorities say smokers should smoke outside and extinguish cigarettes in a sturdy ashtray filled with sand or water. In the kitchen, food being cooked on a stove top should never be left unattended. Gloves, aprons and anything else that can burn should be kept at least 3 feet from heat sources, the State Fire Marshal's Office said.

The fire marshal's office also said burning candles, which produced a fire that killed one person last year, should always be kept 3 feet from combustible sources and never left unattended. The same rules apply for space heaters, DPS said.

Fires can double every 60 seconds, so having working smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms is critical. Those devices should be tested monthly and batteries changed yearly, according to the fire marshal's office.

With most residential fires occurring during the winter and peaking in January, the fire marshal advises homeowners to keep all doors and windows that could be used as an escape route clear of ice and snow.

"There are many little things we can do to prevent a devastating fire from happening in our homes," said State Fire Marshal Jim Smith. "It is important to practice fire prevention and safety every day."

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768