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Pandemic has contributed to recent record-high number of fire deaths, officials say

The Maine Office of State Fire Marshal said 27 people died in fires in 2021. Some fires occurred at odd times of day, with more people at home during the pandemic.

AUGUSTA, Maine — This week, Maine has seen bone-chilling temperatures, and those of us who know better aren't expecting to see a major warm-up any time soon. Winter in the northeast brings an increased need for heat at home, but officials are warning heating hazards are one of the biggest contributing factors to fires. The pandemic has also played a role in a recent rise in fire deaths.

Last year, 27 people died in fires, according to the state fire marshal's office. That's a record high in at least the past two decades. The last time the number of fire deaths reached a similar peak was in 2014 at 25 deaths. 

Maine's deadliest year for fires was in 1967 (before a major push for smoke detectors) with 70 deaths. 

"In general, I think there's quite a complacency with people's concerns for fires in their homes," said Maine State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas.

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Thomas said he and his team analyzed data and determined the number of fire deaths in 2021 is related to the COVID-19 pandemic, with Mainers spending more time at home. He said between nine and 11 of last year's fires took place during the daytime when fatal fires, which is not usually the case

"Given the times that those events took place, the logic would be, 'Well, if they had been at work, that incident would not have happened,'" said Thomas. 

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Chief Chris Farley with the Camden Fire Department still remembers a fire he responded to last February that killed a teenage boy. 

"It just kind of brings back those events that happened," Farley told NEWS CENTER Maine. He said most or all of the fatal fires he has worked did not have working smoke detectors. 

"Having working smoking detectors, having working carbon monoxide detectors, they provide that early first warning that there's something going on in your house that you need to pay attention [to] and look at," said Farley. 

Farley said those tools are more important than ever because of the nature of materials that make up a lot of homes these days.

"Houses ... are primarily made of synthetic materials, so when a fire starts, the products that are burning are burning hotter, faster, and are producing much more black toxic smokes," said Farley.

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Thomas and Farley said three main causes of fires are cooking, heating, and smoking. Thomas said people are multi-tasking more than ever these days, and that can lead to dangerous distractions while doing things like cooking.

Farley said portable heaters can pose a threat if they're not used properly. When it comes to smoking, Thomas said more people are conscious of the dangers of smoking indoors, so they often step outside to smoke. If they don't get rid of their cigarette in a safe manner outdoors, though, that can result in an external fire that spreads to the home. 

"If we don't try to make people aware of this issue, then as we go through 2022, it's just going to be more of the same," Thomas said, noting the first fatal fire of 2022 happened on New Year's Day.

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Farley said anyone in the Camden area in need of a safety check or smoke detector can reach out to the Camden Fire Department. He said the department has funds to buy smoke detectors for those who can't afford them and they will install them. If you already have a smoke detector, he said you should be changing the batteries at least every six months and be checking it the first day of every month.