Fire officials stress caution during cold months

A burnt-out trailer shell is all that remains Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, in Houma, La., after a Christmas day fire destroyed the burned home. A fire inspector says the blaze that killed three children from Alabama started in the living room of the mobile home where they were staying.  (AP Photo/The Houma Daily Courier, Benjamin Oliver Hicks) Show caption
A burnt-out trailer shell is all that remains Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, in Houma, La., after a Christmas day fire destroyed the burned home. A fire inspector says the blaze that killed three children from Alabama started in the living room of the mobile home where they were staying. (AP Photo/The Houma Daily Courier, Benjamin Oliver Hicks)

Two fatal fires highlight dangers

More than a dozen residential fires plagued south Louisiana residents last week, punctuated by two fatal fires, including an early morning Christmas blaze in Houma that killed three children.

In the wake of the relatively fiery, chilly week, officials urged residents to safeguard their homes before it’s too late.

“If you do nothing else, go out and buy a smoke alarm,” said Nancy Malone, a spokeswoman for The American Red Cross in Baton Rouge. “If you have them, go out and check that they’re working.”

Fire officials tout smoke alarms as the most important fire safety investment that often provides precious minutes for people to respond to the danger.

“I can’t say enough about smoke detectors — they save lives,” said Eldon Ledoux, a spokesman for the St. George Fire Department. “They won’t prevent a fire, but they’ll save your life by letting you know there is one.”

About 90 percent of Louisiana’s fatal fires — including the Christmas Day fire in Houma — occur in homes without a working smoke alarm, said State Fire Marshal Butch Browning Jr.

“If you have a properly working smoke alarm, typically, you get out,” Browning said.

The deadly blaze was possibly sparked by space heaters and candles, common cold-weather household items that must always be handled with caution, fire officials said.

“Basically, just be extra cautious,” said Robert Combs, a spokesman for the Baton Rouge Fire Department. Combs recommended shying away from: leaving an open flame unattended, especially while cooking; placing space heaters within three feet of any combustible material; and crowding too many people into restricted spaces.

Additional holiday precautions include being wary of electrical cord limitations, especially with Christmas lights, and knowing when to recycle a dried out Christmas tree.

Since last Friday, south Louisiana has seen at least 15 residential fires displace about 70 people, said Malone, the Red Cross spokeswoman, including six fires in the Baton Rouge area on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

In addition to the Houma fatalities, a 70-year-old man died on Dec. 21 in Slidell when a fire was sparked by a cigarette he was smoking in bed, said Chad Duffaut, chief of fire prevention for St. Tammany Fire Protection District No. 1.

Fire officials said mobile homes do not necessarily represent substantial fire hazards, but that generally smaller, confined spaces only heighten the need for working smoke alarms.

Anyone in need of a working smoke alarm can visit the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal’s website to make an electronic request for a free one, Browning said.

In addition, many local fire departments offer to install free smoke alarms, often acquired via the State Fire Marshal’s “Operation Save a Life,” for qualifying residents. The office budgets $100,000 annually to provide smoke detectors to fire departments for distribution. The departments can request them at any time, said Bob Wolfe, assistant chief of emergency services with the State Fire Marshal’s office.

So far, in 2013, the office distributed about 13,100 smoke detectors across the state, Wolfe said.

In one instance about two weeks ago, two elderly women contacted their local fire department in St. Mary Parish to take advantage of the program, Browning said, and less then two weeks passed before the investment paid off.

“There’s a good possibility,” Browning said, “they could have been injured or killed” without the alarms, which allowed them to exit their residence safely.