CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – More people have died in fires in New Hampshire in the last three months than in the entire previous year.

A woman and her granddaughter died early Thursday morning in Claremont, pushing the year’s fire fatalities to 11 and surpassing 2007’s total of 10 deaths. Authorities have not yet released the identities of the latest victims, but said several other people escaped the flames that broke out shortly before 3:30 a.m. in a two-story home.

“It’s been a tough couple of weeks,” said state Fire Marshal Bill Degnan. “It’s a tremendous stress on our office, with the small staff that we have, having to deal with these tragedies and document these scenes, and make sure that you don’t miss something.

“You learn from every fire you go to. You can’t prevent every fire, but you certainly can get a message out that hopefully will save somebody’s life,” he said.

Degnan said there’s no simple reason why there have been so many fatal fires, but he and other officials said the recent tragedies highlight the importance of adopting basic fire prevention and safety measures, such as ensuring that smoke detectors are working and that heating units are installed properly. They also are reminding residents to develop and practice emergency exit plans and, during this extra-long winter, to make sure doors aren’t blocked by snow.

That was the case in Stratford, where a man, his daughter and his girlfriend died March 25 in a fire caused by a wood stove installed too close to the walls of their mobile home. The victims were found near a back door that had been blocked by snow. There were smoke detectors in the home, but investigators weren’t able to determine if they had been working, Degnan said.

Stratford Fire Chief Charles Stinson said with the high cost of fuel this winter, it was just a matter of time before a fire from an alternative heating source broke out. In response to the fatal fire, he plans to print leaflets featuring safety tips and distribute them throughout his town.

“I’m hoping to better prepare them for next winter,” he said Thursday.

Shawn Longerich, director of the People’s Burn Foundation, said she predicted last year that the slowing economy would lead to fatal fires as families turned to alternative sources of fuel. But the biggest problem remains the lack of working smoke detectors, she said.

A national campaign about a decade ago to promote the use of smoke detectors worked, Longerich said, but it’s time for another large-scale effort.

“We made a difference, then we backed off,” she said. Her organization, based in Indiana, is a national group focused on fire prevention and community education.

“When we teach our kids to cross the street, we don’t just teach them once to look both ways before they cross, we do it with repetition. That’s the same thing when it comes to fire safety and fire prevention. Parents have to be diligent about the messaging.”

“People think, ‘It’s never going to happen to me,”‘ she said. “That itself is the first mistake.”

In Franklin, investigators believe a heater or a power tool’s battery charger may have sparked a carriage house fire that killed a mother and two of her daughters March 23, but there also were no smoke detectors in the building. In addition to the multi-victim fires, fires in Lancaster, Milan and Portsmouth had one victim each earlier this year.

According to the state fire marshal’s office, fatal fires have declined in New Hampshire over the last few decades. The state averaged 18 fatalities a year from 2000 to 2005. That number dropped to an average of 12 deaths per year from 2003 to 2007.

Nationally, fires kill an average of nine people each day, more than 3,200 a year.


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