Minnesota fire fatalities dropped sharply in 2018 from an exceptionally deadly 2017 and stand at the lowest total since 2009, according to state statistics released Thursday.

There were 36 fire-related deaths in the state last year, down 47 percent from 68 in the previous year, preliminary data from the State Fire Marshal disclosed. The 2017 total was the state’s deadliest year since 1995, which had 86 deaths, and far above recent years.

The leading cause of fatal fires last year in Minnesota was careless smoking (5), followed by cooking (3) and portable heaters (2), the data showed.

The cause is still undetermined in 20 deaths from fire in 2018, representing 55.5 percent of the total.

The number of undetermined fire deaths has trended upward in recent years from a low of 11.4 percent in 2009.

“Fire sometimes destroys so much evidence that it is very difficult to have enough to prove a crime was committed or determine a cause with certainty,” said Jennifer Longaecker, a state Department of Public Safety spokeswoman. “Our investigators will reopen a case with an undermined cause if new evidence or tips come to light.”

Death tally fluctuates

State Fire Marshal Bruce West said it is difficult to pinpoint a reason for the decrease in fire deaths. He did praise fire departments for teaching fire prevention and fire safety. He said he also believes Minnesotans are serious about fire safety.

“We must always keep our guard up because a devastating fire can happen to anyone,” West said. “It is common for us to see peaks and valleys with fire deaths, but we all need to continue working together toward the ultimate goal: zero fire deaths in Minnesota.”

The annual total has fluctuated significantly in the past 10 years, from 2017’s high of 68 to a low of 35 in 2009.

The number of fires — fatal and nonfatal — in Minnesota has actually dropped in recent years, from 6,429 structure fires in 2012 to 6,020 in 2016. But fires also have gotten deadlier in recent years, fire officials say.

The Fire Marshal Division offers many prevention tips. Among them:

• Those who smoke should do so outside and extinguish smoking items in a sturdy ashtray holding sand or water.

• Never leave food cooking on the stovetop unattended.

• Keep space heaters 3 feet from combustibles, do not leave them unattended and turn them off when sleeping.

• Have annual furnace and chimney inspections.

• Test smoke and carbon monoxide alarms monthly; change the batteries annually.

• Create a family escape plan and practice it twice a year with everyone in the home.

“Saving lives and further reducing this number is possible if we all commit to making fire prevention a priority where we live and work,” Gov. Tim Walz said in a statement accompanying the release of the latest data.