AP Legal Affairs Writer
COLUMBUS — The number of fire-related deaths in Ohio dropped last year to a 26-year low, with the state fire marshal attributing part of the decline to the unusually mild winter.
It was the second year running that Ohio saw double digit decreases in the numbers of people killed in blazes, said Fire Marshal Larry Flowers.
The state recorded an unofficial 106 fire deaths for 2012, a 17 percent drop from the year before, which saw 128 fire deaths.
The figures for 2012 are tentative and could rise slightly as fire departments finish their mandatory reporting to the state.
The year’s deadliest fire happened in November in northwest Ohio. A fast-moving fire leveled a 130-year-old farmhouse and killed three young children and two adults. The wood-frame home, which sat outside the village of Republic, about 50 miles southeast of Toledo, was fairly isolated and surrounded by farm fields. The nearest house was about a quarter-mile away.
Flowers said the cause of the majority of fatal fires was undetermined. Smoking and cooking led the categories when the cause was known.
In more than two-thirds of fatalities, homes either lacked a smoke detector or it couldn’t be determined whether one was present.
“One thing that will definitely save lives is everyone having working smoke detectors,” Flowers said Friday.
Flowers said the mild temperatures from January to March a year ago may have played a role in the decline. In cold weather, people use space heaters, a frequent cause of fires.
This month, Ohio is running ahead of last year’s figures, with 10 deaths recorded in January compared with four last year at this time. Temperatures have been far more seasonal this year and a cold snap next week is expected to bring some single-digit temperatures.
As a result, the fire marshal’s office is reminding people to keep space heaters away from fabric, check fireplaces before lighting them for the first time and making sure each level of the house has a working smoke alarm.
Several major cities around the country also reported record low fire deaths for 2012, including Boston, Philadelphia and New York, whose 58 fire deaths was the lowest reported since 1916.
Maryland and Mississippi also reported declines, with Mississippi’s 62 deaths a record for one year, and also partly attributable to the mild winter, according to Mississippi Fire Marshal Mike Chaney.
Officials in those cities and states said fire prevention and education programs are the chief reason why deaths are declining. Maryland is also one of several states where cigarettes sold in the state must be manufactured with a band that snuffs out the cigarette if it’s left unattended.
The mild winter may have played a role in lower fire deaths in 2012, though it’s too soon to tell for sure or if the decline was seen nationally, said Tom Olshanksi, a spokesman for the U.S. Fire Administration.
“The numbers are incredibly encouraging across the country from what we’re seeing,” he added.
Besides the Republic fire, two fires in March that killed four people each were the year’s deadliest. One was determined to be a murder-suicide.
On March 3, a house fire in Warren about 50 miles southeast of Cleveland killed two girls, their mother and a man who was staying with them. Authorities said the blaze apparently began in the kitchen, possibly near the stove, and no smoke detectors were found in the house.
On March 17, a man in East Liverpool recently separated from his longtime girlfriend set himself and his house on fire two months ago, killing him and his three young sons. The arson was ruled a murder-suicide after investigators determined that 37-year-old Ulrick Estimot locked the house’s front and back doors, poured gasoline throughout the home and set himself on fire.