EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the first in a three-day series about the number of area residents who died in building fires last year, and the challenges faced by fire departments, especially volunteer departments.
By EILEEN MCCLORY
Twelve people died last year in building fires in Allen, Hancock, Hardin, Putnam, Seneca, Wood and Wyandot counties, three times more than the number who died in 2016, according to an analysis of state data by The Courier.
The deadliest area fire killed five members of one family last October near Fostoria.
Jim Rainey, his wife Jodi L. Depinet-Rainey, and their children, Austin, Cody and Jessica, all perished in the blaze at 10331 W. Ohio 18, just east of Fostoria.
Jim Rainey’s parents, Bob and Sue, went to the scene of the fire, where they watched helplessly as the house burned.
In comparison to last year’s 12 fire deaths, a total of four people died in fires in the same seven counties in 2016, according to The Courier’s analysis.
In the first five months of this year, four people died in building fires in these counties, as of May 31, 2018.
Last year’s fire deaths in the seven area counties were the most since 2010. Between four and seven fire deaths occurred every year between 2010 and 2017.
Last year’s fatal fires included a Hancock County blaze that killed two Houcktown residents when their house trailer burned in December, and a Wood County fire in September where a man died in Northwood.
Two more Seneca County fires last year killed two more women, one at 295 Boston Ave., Fostoria, in December, and another in May at 534 E. North St. in Fostoria.
Two more fatal fires happened in early 2017: one in Putnam County at 17123 Road M, Ottawa, and an Allen County fire that killed a man at 3683 Herr Road, Lima.
It’s not clear what drove the uptick in fatal fires, though fire officials have some ideas.
Findlay Fire Chief Josh Eberle said last winter’s extreme, prolonged cold may have contributed.
“When we get those extremely harsh conditions, extreme cold for an extended period of time, that can put additional stress on people’s homes,” Eberle said.
“We had a harder winter this year than the last few years,” said Todd James, executive director of the North Central Ohio chapter of the American Red Cross, which helps fire victims in Hancock, Hardin, Seneca, Wyandot, Crawford, Marion, Morrow and Union counties.
The total number of building fires, or fires which cause structural damage to homes, did not increase last year in the seven counties.
Firefighters responded to 433 building fires last year in the region, compared with 436 fires the previous year.
The seven-county region saw a small uptick in the total number of fires — 1,626 — that firefighters responded to and reported to the State Fire Marshal’s Office last year. There were 31 more fires reported in 2017 than in 2016.
Those numbers include structure fires, car fires, cooking fires, rubbish fires, and fires at industrial plants, among others.
There are some things that can help protect families from fires.
Eberle and James suggested checking smoke alarms to ensure they work. If a person needs a smoke alarm, he or she can contact the Red Cross at 1-844-207-4509 or contact a local fire department.
The Red Cross will give out and install fire alarms for free, as well as special equipment for those who are elderly or deaf, James said.
The two organizations also help families develop an escape plan to leave the house when a fire breaks out.
Bob and Sue Rainey don’t have answers as to what caused the fire at their son’s home last year.
According to state investigators, the house was too burned to figure out what happened. Investigators were only able to conclude that the fire started somewhere on the first floor.
Sue Rainey has some advice for parents with grown children: get your son’s or daughter’s financial and insurance information. She said it was incredibly difficult to figure out where her son’s insurance was, as she had no idea where to begin to look.
She also didn’t know where Jim and his wife did their banking.
“The worst thing is going to a lawyer and doing an estate for your children, when they should have been doing that for you,” Sue Rainey said.
TUESDAY: Seneca County had a total of 17 fire deaths from 2010 through 2017, the most of seven area counties.