The house fire and the death that resulted from it Sunday morning could easily have been prevented, a Wichita fire official said.
An 83-year-old man died in a fire reported shortly after 8:30 a.m. Sunday at 1538 N. Erie, said Fire Marshal Brad Crisp. The victim and his 52-year-old son were awake when they noticed a small fire in the older man’s bedroom in the southwest corner of the house near 13th and Hillside.
“The occupants attempted to fight the fire prior to calling 911,” Crisp said. “Fire doubles in size for every minute it’s allowed to burn.”
While the cause of the fire has not yet been confirmed, he said, the elderly man was using a space heater connected to an extension cord. Those cords aren’t typically designed to handle the load required by space heaters and can malfunction, triggering a fire.
Fire crews responding to the 911 call “found heavy flames and smoke showing through the front of the structure,” Crisp said.
The son was able to escape and was found in the front yard. His father’s body was found in the bathroom.
An autopsy is planned for Monday to confirm the cause of death, Crisp said. Authorities are withholding the victim’s name pending the notification of relatives and the completion of the autopsy.
The fire caused an estimated $80,000 in damage to the house and its contents, he said.
The father and son made two critical mistakes that contributed to the fire, Crisp said: A space heater was connected to an extension cord instead of a wall outlet. They then tried to fight the fire instead of calling 911 and evacuating the house immediately.
“It’s really not advantageous to try to fight a fire rather than call 911,” he said.
Carbon monoxide acts “almost like a narcotic,” Crisp said. “It doesn’t really allow you to process” unfolding events properly.
Firefighters often find victims in unusual places because they’ve become confused about where they are or where they’re going as they try to escape.
“It doesn’t take more than a couple of deep breaths...to poison you,” Crisp said. “You get disoriented and you can’t find the way out of the place you know better than any place in the world.”
In the event of a fire, he said, people should call 911, collect their children and family members, close doors and gather at a designated meeting place – say, a mailbox or tree away from the house, a place that everyone knows. That way everyone can be quickly accounted for when the fire crews arrive.
The house had a smoke alarm, Crisp said, but it didn’t sound at the time of the fire. Investigators will determine why it malfunctioned. That played no role in the fire, however, because both residents were awake and responded to the fire.
This is the 11th fire death of the year in Wichita.
“It’s tough,” Crisp said of a fatality total more than twice the city’s annual average. “People on the Fire Department take that personally.”