RI Fire Marshal: House fires up 25% because of pandemic


EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — House fires are up 25% from last year, according to State Fire Marshal Timothy McLaughlin.

“I think it’s [because it’s] a pandemic, people are home more,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said nearly half of all house fires occur between December and February, which is when the temperatures drop and people are eager to keep their families warm and cozy.

He said it only takes a tiny spark to ignite a catastrophic fire, like the one that destroyed three homes on Prudence Island Thursday night.

That fire, he said, was caused by wood stove: soon after the homeowner lit it, she noticed smoke in her home.

“Where the pipe that vents it outside from the wood stove, she saw a red glow around the pipe,” McLaughlin explained. “I think she had a fire going, sparks were going up, they found a void and went out into the structure.”

The fire ultimately spread to two neighboring homes, reducing all three to rubble.

McLaughlin said it’s important to ensure wood stoves are properly installed, and to have them cleaned and inspected at least once a year.

“A lot of the creosote builds up from the wood,” he explained. “If it’s a flue, it’ll build thickness and that’s what burns. So, if you don’t get it rid of that, that builds up, the fire comes in and it just finds a void. It doesn’t have to be a big void. It only has to be a small void and it will just get into your structure, and obviously we saw what happened.”

McLaughlin said space heaters are another common cause of house fires. He said a space heater was likely to blame for a deadly fire earlier this month in West Warwick.

That fire, which he said was sparked by a pile of clothes placed next to a gas heater, claimed the life of Jason Mather, 41, who became trapped soon after waking up his uncle.

Mather’s uncle, identified as Steven Lima, 54, also died from his injuries Friday. Lima, who’s handicapped, was forced to jump out of a window to escape the flames.

“Space heaters get very, very hot and you might have it next to a chair with something on it or a pillow or whatever and next thing you know, that pillow’s going and once it catches the chair and everything else, it becomes a disaster,” he said.

McLaughlin said generators, extension cords and cooking are other common causes of house fires. When it comes to using any heating or electric device in your home, he said you should always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines.

While all of this sounds simple and straightforward, McLauglin said keeping these tips in mind when heating your home during the winter months could potentially be lifesaving.

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