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Utah fire deaths highest since ’92

Smoke detectors would have saved 8 of 20 killed last year

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Utah had its highest number of fire-related deaths in 13 years during 2005, according to new statistics from the Department of Public Safety.

Twenty people were killed in fires last year in the Beehive State, the most since 1992 when there were 32 deaths, according to the Utah State Fire Marshal's Office.

"I knew we were busy, but I didn't realize it was that high," said South Salt Lake Fire Chief Steve Foote. "That's very upsetting."

In 16 of those fatal fires, the victims were found in a house, condominium or camper. Three of the fatal fires were in vehicles and one was in a garage.

The year got off to a bad start almost immediately and seemed to continue throughout the year.

A 26-year-old pregnant mother, Christina Lee Ward, and two of her children, 4-year-old Dalton Ray James Ward and 2-year-old Mackenzie Brooke Ward, were killed in a fire in Logan Jan. 16.

The same day as the Logan fire, 12-year-old Arista Hamilton, was killed in a mobile home fire in Smithfield.

Carter Bailey, 29, and Damien Hunsaker, 21, were killed Nov. 26 in a house fire in Sandy. The two were staying in the basement.

In eight of the fatal fires in 2005 there was no working smoke detector, according to the Fire Marshall's Office.

Now, many fire officials are using that information to strongly urge residents to install both fire and carbon monoxide detectors in their homes and to make sure they regularly change the batteries.

"It's so cheap compared to the price of a life or the price of property to have working, functioning detectors," said Unified Fire Authority spokesman Jay Torgersen.

Foote said in addition to the fatal fires there were a lot of near misses that turned out OK because someone woke up thanks to a smoke detector or took the time to plan out an escape plan.

Salt Lake City Fire spokesman Scott Freitag concurred with the others on the call for all residents to have a working smoke detector.

"Our experience has been the vast majority of fire deaths can be prevented with a little bit of caution and awareness," he said. "(Smoke detectors) are so inexpensive. In fact most fire departments have programs to give them away to low-income individuals. There really is no reason why every home shouldn't have smoke detectors. It would reduce fire deaths to almost none."

Candles, smoking and space heaters were the three biggest causes of house fires in Utah, Freitag said.

The number of fire deaths has been steadily growing each year since 2001 when it reached a record low of six. The State Fire Marshal's Office has been keeping records of fire-related deaths since 1979.

The most fire deaths in one year was 1984 when there were 55. Twenty-seven of those deaths were in the Wilberg Mine fire in Emery County.

From 1979 to 1992 the state averaged more than 23 fire-related deaths a year. But from 1993 to 2005 it averaged just under 14 deaths a year.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com