In 1997, fires killed four people in Washington County, the highest number in three years according to a report released by the Maryland State Fire Marshal's office Monday. It also was the highest number of fire deaths in any Western Maryland county, the report said.
Only one person died in a fire in the Washington County in 1996 and there were no fire fatalities in 1995, the report said.
Statewide, there were 74 fire deaths in 1977, the second lowest number in 23 years, the report said. That number was slightly above the all-time low of 62 fire-related deaths recorded in 1996, the report said.
It was the third year in a row that fire deaths have dropped.
There were 114 deaths in 1994, the report said.
Thirty-two percent of the fire deaths last year occurred in Baltimore City, which had 24 fatalities in 14 fires, the report said.
Baltimore County reported 11 fire deaths, Montgomery County reported 8 deaths, and Prince George's County reported 7 fire deaths.
In Washington County, George Eugene Maphis, 56, of 727 Washington Avenue, Hagerstown, who had multiple sclerosis and was in a wheelchair, died last September in an early morning fire that gutted his home.
Last April 3, Jesse Lester Shoemaker Sr., 83, died when the camper trailer in which he lived off Indian Springs Road west of Clear Spring burned to the ground.
A Dec. 30 fire on Sherbrooke Drive claimed the life of Edna Ruth Hoover, 66, who died three days later on Jan. 2, 1998.
Hoover apparently had fallen asleep and dropped a cigarette on a chair in the living room, according to a state fire marshal's report at the time.
Local fire officials could not determine the fourth fire fatality in the county.
While the number of fire deaths in Maryland has declined in recent years, smoking remains the leading cause, accounting for almost 34 percent of fire deaths last year.
In Maryland last year, 25 people died in 20 fires caused by smoking-related blazes, the report said.
Fires caused by careless smoking are difficult to extinguish, said Mike Weller, life safety educator for the Hagerstown Fire Department.
Those fires tend to be slow burning and aren't discovered until it's too late, he said.
A dozen fire deaths in the state last year were attributed to electrical fires, while combustible materials placed too close to a heat source was the third leading cause of fatal fires with 6 deaths, the report said.
About 25 percent of the fire victims last year were younger than 15 years, while 30 percent were 65 or older, according to the report.
Fire officials attribute the decline in the number of fire deaths to an increased use of fire detectors.
A life safety survey conducted last year by the Hagerstown Fire Department showed an 88 percent smoke alarm compliance rate, Weller said.
Proper use of smoke detectors and maintenance are the biggest challenges facing fire educators today, he said.
"We do see a significant number of properties where we see outdated smoke detectors," Weller said.
Smoke detectors should be replaced every 10 years, he said.
Batteries should be replaced twice a year and detectors should be tested weekly, he said.