Careless smoking causes string of fires

March 07, 2006|by PEPPER BALLARD


When a maintenance worker arrived at Linda Ford's one-bedroom mobile home the morning of Feb. 20, he watched the 58-year-old woman put out a cigarette on her mattress.

Later that night, Ford died when a fire engulfed her home.

Five city fires since Jan. 26 - including the one that killed Ford - were caused by careless smoking, Hagerstown Fire Department fire prevention officer Mike Weller said Monday.

The fires, which Weller said were caused by 90 cents worth of cigarettes, left one woman dead, one man seriously injured, displaced 16 families and caused about $585,000 worth of property damage.


The fires were "predictable, understandable and almost totally preventable," Weller said.

Careless smoking is the No. 1 cause of fire-related deaths in Maryland, mainly because the discarded cigarette is often found not far from the person who was smoking it, Weller said.

In the fire at Ford's home, firefighters were called to 280 S. Prospect St. shortly before 10 p.m. The fire started in a mattress and set her hair on fire, which sent her searching for water to extinguish it. But the maintenance worker had turned off the water earlier in the day and told Ford to call a plumber to fix a cracked pipe, Weller said.

The first in the string of careless smoking fires occurred Jan. 26. A fire broke out at 21 W. Antietam St., a vacant apartment building, and caused $21,000 in damage. Vagrants broke into an apartment and were drinking and smoking cigarettes. Hagerstown Assistant City Fire Marshal Richard Miller said the fire started in a mattress, which the people who were in the apartment tried to move before fleeing. Those people have not been found, he said.

A man who tossed a smoked cigarette over a balcony at 52 Broadway on Feb. 16 saw that it had caught garbage on fire on a neighbor's porch below and extinguished it before crews arrived, Weller said.

A cigarette burning in a sofa caused about $70,000 in damage to 36 Fairground Ave. on Feb. 22. Weller said the fires at Ford's mobile home, the vacant apartment building and at Fairground Avenue were alcohol-related, too. He said many fires caused by careless smoking are related to drinking.

In the Fairground Avenue fire, Weller said Lester Harmel had to jump from his attic bedroom to escape the blaze and has serious injuries, including broken legs and serious burns. He said Harmel should never have been permitted to sleep in the attic because he had no way out other than to jump or to run through the fire.

"We discourage attics or basements as apartments" for that reason, Weller said.

Paul Fulk, a City of Hagerstown code compliance inspector, said that aside from not having proper exits, uninhabitable attics or basements are not required to have smoke detectors.

A Feb. 24 fire that started on a porch at 1160 Kenley Ave. also was caused by careless smoking, Weller said. He said someone put out a cigarette in an ashtray on a porch, but the wind carried embers from the cigarette into a dry mop, which carried over into a rolled area rug and continued into the roof of the apartment building. The fire caused about $500,000 in damage and displaced 10 families.

The fire department will continue to help educate the public about fire prevention through the area's public and private schools, billboards and tours through buildings and apartments devastated by fires, Weller said.

He said that in the past year, the department has encouraged about 50 property owners to incorporate fire prevention checklists into their leases.

Weller said people still believe "it can't or won't happen to me."

Anyone interested in getting a free smoke alarm may call Weller at 301-739-8577, ext. 415.

Recent fires

Dates and addresses of Hagerstown fires caused by careless smoking:

Jan. 26 - 21 W. Antietam St.

Feb. 16 - 52 Broadway

Feb. 20 - 280 S. Prospect St.

Feb. 22 - 36 Fairground Ave.

Feb. 24 - 1160 Kenley Ave.

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