Humans are cause of most '04 fires

Number of blazes in Juneau holds steady over past two years

Posted: Sunday, January 09, 2005

Last year seemed a bad year for fires in Juneau, the city's fire marshal said - until he looked at the numbers.

Juneau residents can do more to prevent fires, but the figures for 2004 weren't so different from the figures for 2003, Fire Marshal Rich Etheridge said.

"There wasn't a whole lot of difference," he said. "I think it's just that they all came at once."

In December 2004 and though the first day of 2005, there were four residential fires, he noted. The causes don't appear to be related. Although winter increases the potential for fires with people cranking up the heat to stay warm, only one fire appeared to be related to the cold.

Etheridge said residents need to make sure their furnaces and hot-water heaters are kept in good running order because the equipment has to work harder in the winter. Residents also need to keep dryer vents clean to prevent heat buildup.

Residents also need to keep in mind some things they shouldn't do.

"In the majority (of fires), there is some sort of human error," Etheridge said.

The Jan. 1 fire in the Mendenhall Valley, the first residential blaze of 2005, was started by a hand-held torch that an occupant of the trailer was using to thaw frozen pipes, Etheridge determined.

Other recent fires don't appear to be weather-related.

A house fire on Glacier Highway near downtown in late December may have been related to incorrect fluid being used in a kerosene lamp, he said.

A fire in a Switzer Village trailer the week before may have been due to unattended cooking, and an apartment fire the same day near Salmon Creek probably was caused by a cigarette in the kitchen trash, Etheridge said.

A November fire at Capital Chevrolet seems to be unrelated in cause to the others, Etheridge said. That one turned out to be electrical in nature.

Altogether, there were 131 fire calls in 2004, compared to 125 in 2003. False alarms increased from 241 to 265. Emergency medical service calls increased from 2,193 to 2,293, and there were only half as many ruptures or explosions in 2004 - two compared to four.

No fire-related fatalities were reported in 2004. Juneau hasn't had anyone killed in a fire since 1996, Etheridge said.

Still, many residents think of 2004 as a year of fire because of the Aug. 15 blaze that led to the demolition of a 108-year-old building at Front and Seward streets.

The downtown fire did have something in common with many of the recent fires. Etheridge determined that one, too, could be attributed to human error. His investigation found it was ignited by people doing work with a torch on the roof.

He later determined that a fire in the early hours of Sept. 21 at Auke Bay was a case of arson.

The number of fire calls includes vehicle fires, as well as fires to sheds and outhouses - acts of vandalism that officials attribute chiefly to youths.

"If people started to keep a better eye on kids, there wouldn't be as many," Etheridge said.

Etheridge said he is especially concerned with residents taking the batteries out of their smoke detectors. Many people say they take them out because their cooking triggers the alarm.

"Move them farther away," he said.

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