ANCHORAGE - Alaska shows significant improvement in the past two years, but a look at the preceding decade shows that the state consistently ran well ahead of the national average in fire deaths.
Over the decade ending in 2001, Alaska was often near the top, though the two years afterward showed substantial improvement, state and federal statistics show.
According to a U.S. Fire Administration study released this month, fire deaths in Alaska in 2001 occurred at a rate of 25.3 per 1 million population. That was the fourth-highest in the country. Only Mississippi, Delaware and Arkansas ranked worse.
The Fire Administration study, "Fire Deaths in the United States: 1992-2001," says cigarettes are the No. 1 cause of fatal fires nationwide. State statistics show that's true for Alaska, too, except that here most of the fatal fires sparked by cigarettes also involve alcohol.
Sixteen people died in fires in 2001 in Alaska, said Jodie Hettrick, public education coordinator for the Alaska Division of Fire Prevention.
She and State Fire Marshal Gary Powell noted that the Fire Administration study is always a few years behind on data. Alaska did much better in 2002 and 2003, they said.
Nine people died in fires in 2002. Last year, seven people died - dropping the state's fire fatality rate below the national average for the first time in at least 14 years, according to state statistics.
So far this year there have been 12 fire deaths in Alaska, which is still below the 16 deaths annually the state has averaged over the last decade.
Powell said a number of factors have contributed to the state's historically high fire death rate, including the construction of buildings before adequate code enforcement was in place and the use of older, less-safe heating systems, he said.
Autopsy reports have shown that alcohol has played a role in about 35 percent of fatal fires in Alaska over the last decade, Hettrick said.
"For some reason, in 2004, we're at about 75 percent," she said. "We're not sure exactly why it's so much higher this year."
Arson was the second most common cause of fatal fires nationwide in 2001, according to the report.
Hettrick said Alaska's No. 2 cause of fatal fires is combustibles placed too close to heating sources.