Fire deaths hit elderly

By Joe Stumpe

Two recent deaths highlight the risk posed to seniors by house fires, a danger that increases during cooler months.

In September, a 65-year-old Andover man died after being trapped in a house fire. The man was found by firefighters in a bedroom, while another occupant of the house escaped safely.

In July, Bettie Clark-Johnson, 83, a church pianist and pastor’s widow, died in a fire in her north Wichita home. Fire officials said an unusual amount of storage in the home made it difficult to locate her body, raising the possibility that Johnson – who was described as active and mobile by friends – was prevented from escaping by clutter.

Adults 65 and older are 2.5 times more likely to die in a fire than the population as a whole, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, an arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Fire deaths from December through February run more than twice as high as those between June and August, reports the National Fire Protection Association.

Capt. Jose Ocadiz of the Wichita Fire Department said older residents who smoke may be more likely to fall asleep with a lit cigarette, or fail to extinguish it while awake. They may also be more likely to use space heaters, which can ignite clothes, furniture and other items.

“We always suggest a 3-foot radius (of clear space) per space heater, but also making sure they are the newer models that have ‘tip protection.’ If they get tipped over by a pet or something, they automatically shut off.”

A space heater should also have automatic overheat protection, which causes it turn off when it reaches a certain temperature.

Leaving food untended while cooking is yet another common source of house fires. Whatever the origin of a house fire, advanced age can definitely play a role in who survives.

“Not to say 60 is elderly, but you start losing your reaction time and with other medical conditions your mobility may be affected,” Ocadiz said.

Yet another study, this one by the National Institute of Technology, found that “frail populations” – people who are not in good health and primarily age 65 and older – are much more likely to die in house fires because they cannot react quickly.

NFPA research shows that residential sprinkler systems, which can be installed for about the same cost as carpet, are the most effective way to reduce deaths and injuries from fire. If that’s not an option, all homes should be equipped with smoke alarms that are tested regularly, Ocadiz said, and residents should map out an escape plan with two different routes out of their home. If all routes out are blocked, another effective defensive procedure is to take cover behind a closed door – after calling 911, of course. 

“Close the door and you protect yourself from heat and smoke traveling in,” Ocadiz said. 

A residential door can provide 20 minutes of protection, he said, while fire trucks typically reach the scene of a fire within five to six minutes of it being called in. If a resident still uses a landline telephone, it’s essential that they have a connection where they sleep.

Ocadiz said firefighters see many fires in which excessive storage plays a role. In one case, an elderly resident who had stopped cooking was using her oven as a cabinet. When a visiting relative turned it on to bake a cake, the contents inside caught fire.

Storage becomes hoarding in its extreme form. “In the worst cases, there’s a path they walk from the bed to the couch and kitchen and everything else is stacked up around them,” Ocadiz said.

In addition to blocking possible exists, too much storage “adds so much fuel load to the fires themselves.”

The fire department offers free residential safety checks to anyone who requests it for themselves or a family member. The prevention unit can be reached by calling 316-268-4441.

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