Fire-related deaths across South Carolina have hit a three-year high, and December is shaping up to be the deadliest month this year, according to public safety officials.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office had recorded 82 fire-related deaths through Dec. 16 – compared with 71 deaths in 2013 and 72 in 2012.
But a one-week span from Dec. 13 to Satureday has proven to be among the most deadly so far with 12 deaths, including nine on Saturday.
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State Fire Marshal Robert Polk said it was an anomaly to have so many people die within one day as a result of separate residential fires.
“In recent history, no one can recall nine confirmed civilian fire fatalities in one day,” Polk said. “No one wants to forget the nine firefighters that died in Charleston (in 2007). But, we have been unable to immediately pinpoint when we have had that many (deaths) in the course of a day.”
Officials are waiting on a medical examiner’s report to confirm if a 10th death was the result of fire. William Herbert Jones, 86, of Elloree, died at the scene of a fire at his home from medical complications after saving his wife.
If Jones’ death is determined to be fire-related, it would be the 14th of the month and make December the deadliest month of the year.
While the sources of some of the fires were still under investigation Monday, space heaters are being blamed for many that have claimed lives.
Brick Lewis, a Columbia Fire Department spokesman, said there have been four deaths in Columbia as a direct result of space heater fires. Lewis said people who use space heaters with the heating coils exposed should not leave them on while sleeping or within 3 feet of any combustible materials.
That was the case Dec. 13 when a fire claimed the lives of 88-year-old Ned Woods Sr. and 83-year-old Helen Woods at their home on the 5100 of Floran Street off Farrow Road. The couple were the grandparents of Hammond High School basketball standout Seventh Woods.
Investigators determined the fire was caused by one of several space heaters the couple used to heat their home while they slept.
“Nationwide you see the increase in heating fires due to space heaters,” Lewis said. “If it falls on carpet, it may take a period of time, but it will eventually ignite and burn.”
Although space heaters are a common factor among many recent house fires, state fire officials warn of other hazards including candles, temporary wiring and fireplaces.
Polk said fireplace safety is a major issue especially when the temperatures are low between December and March.
“They light a fire and either the chimney hasn’t been cleaned, or the flue isn’t opened or there isn’t a screen in front of the burn box,” Polk said. “It’s imperative that people err on the side of safety.”
Firefighters weren’t the only ones who stayed busy with fires over the weekend, according Louise Welch Williams, regional chief executive office for the American Red Cross in South Carolina.
Williams said more than 25 Red Cross volunteers responded to fires that occurred throughout the state over the weekend.
“The Red Cross is the fire departments’ 911,” Williams said. “We take care of the victims’ families so they can fight the fire.”
Williams said members of the disaster action team were still in Spartanburg Monday providing psychological counseling and health services for those who might have lost medications in a fire that ripped through an apartment complex Saturday claiming five lives, including three children under age 18.