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Officials credit safer cigarettes for fewer fire death

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For some, the upside may be worth the risk, while for others, addiction compels them to continue.

Smoking can also kill you quickly.

But officials said there’s no upside to risking fire, as highlighted by a recent ruling that “unattended smoking materials” caused the Altoona blaze on March 22 that killed five people: Thomas Boyles, 57; Baron R. Snyder Sr., 40; Christopher S. Alvord, 23; Warren A. “Boo” Carter Jr., 35; and Joey A. Middaugh, 17.

“It could have been prevented,” city Fire Inspector Mike Tofano said.

Among evidence found while sifting through debris in the second floor apartment was a telling burn mark, probably from a cigarette, on the fabric-covered cushion of a papasan chair in the front room, Tofano said.

“It all comes back to a small heat source,” he said.

Someone was probably curled up there and dozed off with a smoke in his hand, Tofano said.

He may have rolled over onto the cigarette, because in cases like that, fire tends to spread only after something like a blanket, cushion or a body – “insulates” the burning tobacco, helping contain the heat so it can morph into an open flame, Tofano said.

It doesn’t take long.

“Once the fire catches hold, it doubles in size every minute,” he said.

A quarter of fire deaths

Smoking-material fires killed an estimated 680 people in 2008, according to the website of the Coalition for Fire-safe Cigarettes, an organization coordinated by the National Fire Protection Association.

Smoking-related fires – 114,000 in all – also caused 1,500 injuries and $737 billion in damage that year, according to the coalition website.

Such fire deaths account for about 25 percent of all home-fire deaths, and in a third of them the victims are not the smokers responsible, NFPA spokeswoman Lorraine Carli said.

The numbers are actually improving – there were 66 percent fewer smoking-related fires than in 1980 – due to less smoking, regulations requiring mattresses and upholstery to be resistant to fire from cigarettes and especially laws in effect in all states now requiring cigarettes to be “fire-safe,” according to the website.

The law went into effect in Pennsylvania at the beginning of 2009.

Fire-safe cigarettes have two or three bands of thicker paper as “speed bumps” to stop the burning unless someone is actively smoking, Carli said.

But such cigarettes are not fire-proof, as the Altoona blaze – probably caused by a fire-safe cigarette – shows.

A fire-safe cigarette takes some time to self-extinguish and can still set flammable surroundings alight, “especially if it’s insulated,” Tofano said.

So care remains critical.

‘Careful and prudent’

The NFPA encourages people to smoke outside, to use deep and sturdy ashtrays, to make sure cigarettes are completely extinguished, to check for butts under cushions after parties, not to throw butts into mulch or plantings, not to smoke in the vicinity of bottled oxygen and not to smoke when sleepy or inebriated, Carli said.

You should never smoke in bed, Tofano said.

“It’s too easy to get drowsy,” he said.

You also need to take care with disposal.

Tofano recommended keeping a little water in the bottom of ashtrays or buckets to help ensure cigarettes are out and running water over butts before throwing them away.

He also recommends taking care in placing ashtrays.

He investigated one fire caused by an ashtray that fell from a windowsill into a trash can when pushed by a blind that swung in the breeze.

The cautions are simple.

“You have to be careful and prudent,” said Denny Smith, senior fire expert with Kodiak Fire and Safety Consulting in Fort Wayne, Ind. “You can’t [smoke] without thinking, because the ramifications are so bad.”

No batteries installed

Even after the catastrophic March fire started, the residents might have saved themselves, Tofano said.

But there was a second safety violation in the apartment: the smoke detectors – Tofano located two – lacked batteries.

“They do no good if you don’t maintain them,” Carli said.

The NFPA recommends that each house have two kinds of detectors: ionization, which respond quickly to smoke from flaming fires, and photoelectric, which respond quickly to smoldering fires, she said.

There are detectors that combine both functions.

The NFPA also recommends hard-wiring with battery backup and interconnection between alarms, so when one sounds, they all do, Carli said.

The 2012 International Fire Code allows for wireless interconnection, Tofano said.

Still, people shouldn’t let budget concerns or confusion about details to get in the way of maintaining at least some detection capability in their homes, Tofano said.

“Any smoke alarm is better than none,” he said.

The fire at 1607 18th Ave. on March 22 exemplifies the bad “ramifications” Smith talked about.

“The image I carry away was the amount of devastation,” Tofano said. “All coming back to an act that was completely preventable.”

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