When Red Cross officials saw a surge in the number of people displaced by house and apartments early last year, they figured it was a short-term spike.
But the increase persisted as the months passed.
“We kept asking, ‘Is this really going to be the trend? Surely this is going to get back to normal,’ ” said Bev Morland, executive director of the Midway Kansas Chapter of the American Red Cross.
By the time 2011 ended, the Red Cross had helped nearly 850 people who had been left homeless by a fire – a 30 percent increase over the year before and a 55 percent jump over 2009.
“It’s obviously very disturbing to see,” Morland said.
When people are displaced by a fire, the Red Cross provides lodging at a local hotel for three or five days, depending on the circumstances. It also provides basic necessities such as clothing, toiletries and food vouchers..
Case workers assist with finding more permanent lodging and other steps “necessary to get a household moving forward and back on their feet,” Morland said.
Official statistics on structure fires in 2011 won’t be available for several more weeks, Fire Marshal Brad Crisp said. But the number of fires requiring special investigations jumped nearly 40 percent last year, from 203 in 2010 to 281 in 2011.
Investigators are called out any time arson is suspected, the damage estimate exceeds $25,000, the fire involves a commercial structure or the fire commander on scene isn’t sure how the fire started, Crisp said.
Twice as many people were killed in fires last year – 8 – as the year before.
“In July and August, we were swamped,” said Bill Hayes, a disaster action team coordinator for the Red Cross. “We came close to an all-time record” of calls in August.
Many people were able to find relatives or friends to stay with, but the Red Cross still distributed more than $150,000 in assistance to displaced fire victims, officials said.
“All our money is donated dollars,” Hayes said. “With the economy the way it was, it was a tight year.”
Hayes and Morland say they’re convinced a struggling economy plays a role in rising fire numbers.
“We have a lot of fires caused by people who have had utilities turned off,” he said. “They’ll use electric blankets or space heaters and that kind of thing to stay warm.”
Although they have no firm numbers to confirm their contention, Morland said anecdotal evidence is hard to ignore.
“Often times, when there’s a lot of alternative heating sources being used, people take risks that they shouldn’t take,” she said.
Most house or apartment fires seem to happen at around 2 a.m., Red Cross officials say. There were so many fires last year it was not uncommon for disaster team volunteers to work more than one fire each night and then head to work without getting any sleep.
In response, Morland said, the Red Cross stepped up recruitment of additional volunteers and will continue that this year.
“We really need to promote our training classes aggressively,” she said.
Three volunteers are on call at any one time – two responders and one trainee, Hayes said. Many choose to be on call a week at a time.
Apartment fires are always a concern for firefighters because of the potential for significant numbers of deaths and injuries, officials say. They’re also challenging for the disaster team volunteers because so many people can be displaced at once.
Two large apartment building fires caused by careless smoking last summer displaced so many people the Red Cross nearly opened a shelter to house them, Hayes said.
Careless smoking was confirmed or suspected as the cause in six of the eight fire deaths last year, Fire Capt. Stuart Bevis said. No working fire alarms were present in four of the eight fatalities.
Troubled by the number of apartment fires and fatalities last year, Red Cross officials plan to step up fire prevention and education efforts this year, Morland said. Later this month, Red Cross officials will launch an education program aimed at apartment residents.
“The best fire is one that doesn’t happen,” Morland said.
Residents can take a number of simple steps to reduce the risk of becoming a fire victim, officials say.
Food left unattended on the stove is among the most frequent causes of house fires. Candles left burning unattended are another frequent cause.
“Be more careful with the way you handle your cigarettes and your cooking,” Hayes said.
Carelessly discarded cigarettes caused more than one major apartment building fire last year, along with several fatal house fires.
“It’s always cooking and smoking” at the top of the list of fire causes, Crisp said.
Apartment dwellers should get renter’s insurance, Hayes said.
“We run into so many people who say they wish they had done it,” he said. “It is just dirt cheap for the protection you get.”
Red Cross officials say they hope the trends of 2011 don’t become the new “normal,” but there’s no predicting what this year will bring.
“Every fire is totally different,” Hayes said. “No two fires are the same.”