Smoke alarms beeped as flames engulfed the apartment building in Alexandria, Minn., in the dark of a winter morning.
In the subzero January cold, Derrek Valicenti jumped 15 feet from the second-story bedroom window to safety, a fire official said. Valicenti then turned back and shouted to Shandiin Rose Goodbird, standing at the window, to jump, too.
Terrified, she couldn’t.
Within minutes, dozens of firefighters were on the scene, but by then it was too late. They found Goodbird, 19, in a closet, where she had retreated and died from smoke inhalation.
Alexandria hadn’t had a fatal fire in 15 years. But in the span of just 10 days this winter, the volunteer firefighters in the small west-central Minnesota city 140 miles northwest of the Twin Cities responded to two, which killed three people.
Goodbird was among 28 Minnesotans who died in fires this winter, one of the deadliest winter fire seasons in recent history.
The number of fatalities from Nov. 1 through March 20 was the second-most in a decade, trailing only 2014, when 33 people died. On average, 21 people die in house fires each winter, according to the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
“It’s been a very tragic year,” State Fire Marshal Bruce West said.
The deadly season comes on the heels of an especially deadly year — 63 people died in fires in 2017, the most fatalities since 2002. The average is 48 deaths a year.
‘A matter of life and death’
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.
Over the past decade, fire deaths in Minnesota have trended upward after falling dramatically since the 1970s, when the state adopted a statewide fire code and saw as many as 134 fire-related deaths a year.
“We want that trend to continue downward,” West said, adding he doesn’t think the recent uptick indicates a reversal of the historic trend. “Hopefully it’s an anomaly.”
Winter is especially dangerous, when people are in their homes more and using space heaters and fireplaces.
“People are in their homes where they feel safest,” West said. “People do say ‘It’s not going to happen to me.’ It can happen to you. It can be a matter of life and death.”
Although fire officials say they see an increase in fires over the holidays, the leading cause of fatal fires remains careless smoking.
The first fatal fire of 2018 was smoking related — killing a couple in an Alexandria mobile home park; the home also didn’t have a smoke detector. Neither did the house where a 63-year-old man died in a fire March 17 in northeast Minneapolis, which was also caused by unextinguished cigarettes that burned up a sofa — the 13th fire so far in Minnesota in 2018.
“We find more and more of our fire fatality cases either didn’t have a working smoke alarm, or they had one but it wasn’t working, and that concerns us,” West said.
Minnesota law requires smoke alarms in all residential buildings, including mobile homes. The American Red Cross launched a campaign a few years ago to install and provide free smoke detectors, and starting April 28 the organization plans to donate 2,000 smoke alarms around the state. (To request one, call 612-460-3674 or go to getasmokealarm.org.)
Hitting greater Minnesota
Fires such as the tragic one in Hibbing in December that killed two cousins and their grandparents push public awareness about fire safety to the forefront, West said.
So does Hollywood. The TV death of a main character on the show “This Is Us” after a house fire prompted West’s office to post on social media that the dramatic episode reflected reality, adding that residents should replace batteries in smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors twice a year.
According to a Star Tribune analysis of fire deaths:
• The average age of victims who died in fires in 2017 was 59.
• Adults ages 40 to 69 made up 46 percent of the fire deaths from 2005 to February 2018. Adults older than 70 made up 25 percent of deaths.
• About 40 percent of more than 600 fire deaths over the past 12 years have been in the metro area.
In February, a couple died in a mobile home fire in Inver Grove Heights. The cause has yet to be determined.
The cause of the Alexandria apartment fire also has yet to be determined, but Fire Chief Jeff Karrow said had Goodbird jumped to safety, she may well have survived. The department’s 32 volunteer firefighters teach students about fire safety throughout the year, reminding them not to hide under a bed or in a closet during a fire.
Karrow said the city’s three fire deaths this year have been difficult for his crew, many of whom have never had to respond to a fatal fire. At one point, Karrow called in a chaplain to talk to the crew about post-traumatic stress disorder.
“A bad day in the fire service is different than a bad day in the insurance business,” said Eden Prairie Fire Chief George Esbensen, who helped start the nonprofit Minnesota Firefighter Initiative, which just launched a 24/7 peer support help line (888-784-MNFIRE) to provide emotional trauma support to firefighters by their peers. “There’s a deep stigmatization. [Firefighters are] just like regular people and on top of that, they get thrust into really horrible stuff.”