‘Im Amazed There Hasn’t Been an Outcry,’ Says Riverside Fire Official
By Natalie Johnson / firstname.lastname@example.org
Why do so many Lewis County residents die in fires?
It’s a question weighing heavily on the minds of firefighters in the weeks after the county sustained its 10th house fire-related death in the past two years.
“I’m amazed that there hasn’t been an outcry,” said Assistant Chief Rick Mack, of the Riverside Fire Authority.
Mack said the county has the highest death rate due to fire in the state.
“It is tragic — we’re the sixth highest in the nation,” Chehalis Fire Chief Ken Cardinale said.
According to the state Fire Marshal’s Office 2015 Fire Fatality Report, the most recent report available, 54 fire-related deaths were reported across the state in 2015, adding up to a 7.6 fire deaths per million residents in the state.
The statewide fire deaths were up 13 percent from the previous year, according to the report.
The national fire death rate is closer to 10 for every million residents, Mack said.
With three deaths that same year with about 75,000 residents, Lewis County’s fire-death rate was more than five times the state’s average and four times the nation’s average.
With four house fire-related deaths in 2016, not counting one person who died after a vehicle fire, and three so far in 2017, Lewis County continues to trend high for fire deaths statewide and nationally.
“All of this problem still has, in my opinion, a solution that is relatively simple,” Mack said.
That solution, he said, is up-to-date, properly installed smoke alarms with working batteries. In many of Lewis County’s fire deaths, he noted, investigators believe fire alarms were not present or not working.
“I do believe it is the single greatest invention the fire service has produced since the motorized fire apparatus,” he said.
But despite the simplicity of the solution, and the widely available technology of smoke alarms, people continue to die, leaving firefighters to wonder what more they can do to protect the residents of their districts.
“I want to have an answer for this,” Mack said.
On Feb. 26, 2015, three people— mother Samantha Koehler, 31, and children Bethany Cuvreau, 4, and Tabitha Cuvreau, 2 — died in fire at their home in the 800 block of Northwest First Street in Winlock. A man and two boys survived.
On March 4, 2016, siblings Sam, 7, Maddy, 10, and Ben Tower, 12, died in a fire at their house in the 900 block of Ham Hill Road in Centralia. Their mother, Sue Tower, survived.
On Dec. 20, 2016, Michael J. Pierson, 56, died in a fire at his home in the 129000 block of U.S Highway 12.
On Feb. 9, 2017, three people, Denis L. Watson, 51; Lynn L. Lauer, 72; and Alice M. Lauer, 83, died in their home after a fire in the 100 block of Frost Creek Road in Glenoma.
In all of these cases, the victims died from smoke inhalation, according to Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod.
Many of the fires burned too hot for crews to find a definitive cause, as potential evidence was lost. McLeod said that makes it difficult to speculate why there are so many deaths per capita in the county.
“It actually causes us some concern,” he said of the high death rate.
According to information provided by the state Fire Marshal’s Office, 15 people have died in fires in Lewis County since 2007.
“It’s troubling that we’re so high,” said Chief Doug Fosburg, of Lewis County Fire District 3 in Mossyrock
Several factors could contribute to Lewis County’s high fire death rate, Mack and other chiefs said. It could be a socioeconomic issue — a reflection of the poverty and education levels in the area. It could be because of Lewis County’s high ratio of rental properties or its rural nature.
It could also be a widely held belief among residents here and elsewhere that “it couldn’t happen to me,” Mack said.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it,” Mack said.
That complacency about planning for a fire could be one reason why so many residences have outdated or non-working smoke alarms, or no smoke alarms at all, he said.
Making the problem more complicated, fires now grow quicker and more ferociously than they did 50 or 60 years ago, chiefs said.
“The fires in the 1960s are completely different than the fires today,” Cardinale said.
In the past, homes were filled with heavy wood and stone and natural products such as wool and cotton, Cardinale said. Today, homes are filled with plastics and petrochemical byproducts, which burn hotter and faster and release toxic fumes.
Mack noted that the same products that cause fires to burn hotter can also create dangerous fumes when burning. Upholstered furniture can release poisonous hydrogen cyanide, he said.
“I don’t think people are aware that the fire conditions have changed, and that’s the frustrating part for us,” Cardinale said.
Fifty years ago, residents had 10 or 15 minutes to get out of a house, Mack said. Today, he said it’s more like two or three minutes.
“We don’t have the time we had before,” he said.
In addition to the high number of fire deaths, a number of residents have already been displaced in 2017 due to house fires.
On Feb. 8, the day before the fatal fire in Glenoma, a Centralia family had a close call. All five members of a family living in the home in the 400 block of South Oak Street were injured. Three were airlifted with burns to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Seven members of the same extended family in an adjacent home, which was also damaged, were displaced.
On Wednesday, eight members of a family were displaced when their home in the 500 block of South King Street, less than three blocks away from the Oak Street house, caught fire. None were injured. Mack said fire alarms were sounding when crews pulled up.
As Lewis County continues to have a high fire-death rate, firefighters are struggling to find a way to turn the trend around.
“It’s frustrating first of all for us, extremely frustrating,” Cardinale said. “It can be solved, but it’s going to take funds to do it.”
Cardinale said districts and fire departments need more funding to increase their paid staff levels. He said too few volunteers and full-time staff are able to respond to house fires.
“Many of the chiefs in the county are working on a couple of ideas in regard to trying to bolster our response levels so we can get more people to the scene faster, that’s one approach that we’re going to be talking (about) at our next chiefs meeting,” he said.
Mack said fire districts have historically hoped increased spending for fire response and staff would present the answer to the problem.
“I think history shows it hasn’t,” he said.
Mack said he believes funding for fire prevention and education is the key.
Currently, the RFA and similar fire departments spend about 4 cents on the dollar for fire prevention, he said.
“We need to put our money where our mouths are,” he said.
Two years ago, the RFA, Lewis County Fire District 5 and the American Red Cross participated in a grant program to distribute free smoke alarms and do fire safety inspections.
Mack said he has only a few smoke alarms from that stash left.
In the future, he said he’d like to create a partnership locally that could raise money and collect smoke alarms for a similar effort.
In the meantime, residents should regularly maintain their smoke alarms, he said.
“What I recommend folks to do is take it off the ceiling and look at the back at the date of manufacture,” Mack said.
Smoke alarms should be replaced every 10 years and batteries should be replaced every year.
Each year, firefighters spread the word to local children to create good fire safety habits.
“Every year I go to every second-grade classroom in my jurisdiction,” Mack said.
Fosburg said he too spends time in area schools doing fire prevention training each October.
“I think we do a pretty good job of education in the schools,” he said.
Part of that effort is teaching families to have a home escape plan.
“First and foremost, it starts with a conversation about it,” Mack said.
Families should discuss various routes out of their house or apartment in the event of an emergency, then they should practice repeatedly.
Other safety measures can help in the case of a fire, and hopefully prevent yet another fire death.
“Sleeping with bedroom doors closed is critically important,” Mack said. “If you close that door, you buy yourself time.”
Fire Deaths in Lewis County: February 2015 to February 2017
Feb. 26, 2015 — 800 block of Northwest First Street in Winlock. Mother Samantha Koehler, 31, and children Bethany Cuvreau, 4, and Tabitha Cuvreau, 2, died.
March 4, 2016 — 900 block of Ham Hill Road in Centralia. Siblings Sam, 7, Maddy, 10 and Ben Tower, 12, died.
Dec. 20, 2016 — Michael J. Pierson, 56, died in a fire at his home in the 129000 block of U.S Highway 12.
Feb. 9, 2017 — 100 block of Frost Creek Road in Glenoma. Dennis L. Watson, 51, Lynn L. Lauer, 72, and Alice M. Lauer, 83, died.