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Statistics show that fall is the most common time of year for home fires, with 45 percent of residential fires taking place during this three month period. We’ve seen that trend play out right here in Southern Vermont these last several weeks, with tragic results.

Since mid-November there have been four fatal home fires in Southern Vermont, two of them in just the past week. The Brattleboro community is reeling from the recent death of Ray McNeill, owner of the iconic McNeill’s Brewery on Elliot Street Friday night. He was found in his upstairs apartment above the business. In the early morning hours of that same day, a woman perished in a home fire in Readsboro. Over in Newfane, Russell Buzby died when his Route 30 home caught fire on Nov. 18. And just one day earlier, a body was found two days after a fire destroyed an A-frame seasonal camp site in East Dover.

In two of these cases investigators still have not identified the remains of the victims, and for all four cases the cause remains undetermined.

“A lot of the times it’s because there’s obviously many things that could have caused the fires,” according to Brattleboro Fire Chief Len Howard. “When you can’t eliminate any of those causes, you must go undetermined.”

Based on national data, however, there are some likely culprits. According to the National Fire Protection Association, the leading cause of home fires in the United States is cooking related, about 50 percent. The next two leading causes are heating (13 percent) and electrical (9 percent).

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Here are some more sobering statistics: According to the American Chemistry Council’s North American Flame Retardant Alliance, fire departments in the U.S. responded to a fire every 23 seconds in 2020. That year, firefighters responded to about 1.4 million fires resulting in 3,500 civilian fire fatalities and an estimated $29.1 billion in property damage.

And the most tragic statistic of all: About 95 percent of those deaths could have been prevented by adhering to some basic safety tips. First and foremost, every house should have multiple smoke detectors. Most fire deaths are not caused by burns, but by smoke inhalation. Often smoke incapacitates so quickly that people are overcome and can’t make it to an otherwise accessible exit. This early warning system can wake up sleeping victims and improve their chances of survival by as much as 50 percent.

The Red Cross suggests installing smoke alarms on every level of a home, inside bedrooms and outside sleeping areas; testing smoke alarms every month; and talking with all family members about a fire escape plan and practicing the plan twice a year. If a fire occurs inside a home, the organization advises people to get out, stay out and call for help.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends staying in the kitchen when cooking, giving space heaters at least 3 feet of space from anything that can burn and turning them off while sleeping, smoking cigarettes or other products outside, keeping matches and lighters out of reach, inspecting electrical cords and replacing those with damage or cracks, keeping candles at least 1 foot from anything that can burn and installing sprinklers.

These common sense suggestions don’t require a lot of time or a huge investment, but they are invaluable in avoiding the untold cost of a life cut short.


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