Fire Service warning against complacency as winter nears

By Jordan Bond

More than 3200 residential fires were recorded last year -- up from 2635 in 2011. Photo / File
More than 3200 residential fires were recorded last year -- up from 2635 in 2011. Photo / File

The Fire Service was called to almost 62 house fires a week last year, and a national fire manager is warning people against complacency as winter closes in.

Figures obtained by the Herald reveal the number of residential fires has risen 22 per cent in the last five years.

More than 3200 residential fires were recorded last year -- up from 2635 in 2011.

Fire Service national risk management advisor Todd O'Donoghue said the figure was too high, and the Fire Service continually educated and campaigned for better fire safety in the home.

"We would rather have a level that's much lower than 3000 a year. Obviously any serious fire is a serious fire too much," Mr O'Donoghue said.

"The unfortunate thing is while [the fire safety message] is getting through to a lot of people, there is also a lot of the public who it's not getting to, and they're getting complacent thinking it will never happen to them.

We need people to realise that the risk of fire is actually very real, and that they need to take some responsibility for it."

Mr O'Donoghue said part of the rise in numbers was an increase in calls -- a positive result from a campaign which encouraged people to call the service immediately in the case of a fire. He said some people dangerously attempted to deal with small fires themselves because they thought a callout would cost them.

"A lot of people don't realise just how fast a fire can grow. We don't charge to come to real fires, so it's better to call us sooner than later," Mr O'Donoghue said.

The number of house fires had stabilised over the last three years.

Mr O'Donoghue said the leading site for residential fires was the kitchen -- about 50 per cent more than any other source.

"The single biggest cause of house fires still remains with cooking being left unattended, or people trying to cook while they're under the influence of alcohol," Mr O'Donoghue said.

Electrical faults were the second leading cause of house fires.

Mr O'Donoghue said winter was a time to be particularly aware of two seasonal causes of fire -- heaters placed too close to flammable items such as couches and curtains, and ash from fireplaces incorrectly disposed of.

"A lot of people don't realise the ashes from a fireplace can stay hot for up to five days - hot enough to start another fire." He said fire ashes and embers should be put into a steel container away from the house -- certainly not a cardboard box or rubbish bag -- and even hosed down.

Residential fires resulted in 17 fatalities last year, one more than in 2014. The Fire Service said half of all fatal house fires involved alcohol.

There were no working smoke alarms in 80 per cent of fires. The Fire Service recommends long life photoelectric smoke alarms.

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Number of residential fires, nationwide:

20112635

20122917

20133238

20143195

20153214

-- Source: New Zealand Fire Service

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Case study

Nine months after he lost almost everything he owned in a fire, Kris Beehre says he can still remember how he felt watching flames engulf his home.

"It's panic, it's despair, it's sadness. It's a feeling you can't really describe," he said.

Mr Beehre was asleep at his rented Rotorua property when his smoke alarm went off about 5am in August last year. Thinking it was his phone alarm, he ignored the beeping. He woke up in thick smoke and managed to escape -- naked and in the dark -- through a kitchen window.

Standing outside, Mr Beehre said he felt "helpless".

"You just can't do anything. You want to run in but you can't. You're trying to stay away but you want to go in and get stuff."

Mr Beehre, a chef and restaurant owner, said he lost "pretty much everything" in the blaze, which was started by an electrical fault.

"I had cookbooks from 1915 -- gone. You can't replace that sort of stuff," he said. "I'm just glad my kids weren't with me at the time and no one was hurt."

He now lives about 120m away on the same road, and drives past the property most days.

"It's a good reminder -- I swear by smoke alarms now. I have more alarms at home than I ever thought I'd have," he said.

Although the fire took almost everything from him, Mr Beehre said he can see the lighter side of the situation.

"We joke about it, because that's all you can do. You feel lucky, that's all it was. It wasn't skill, it was pure luck."

- NZ Herald

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