INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana's fire deaths have surged to 54 so far this year, giving the state more fire fatalities in just over five months than all of last year — a troubling increase the state's top fire official said Friday he's at a loss to explain.
State Fire Marshal Jim Greeson said Indiana's 54 fire deaths with more than half of the year still on the calendar compares with the 46 deaths during all of 2012. He said he's puzzled by the surge because there appears to be no common trend that could explain why so many people have died this year in home fires.
Greeson said that during his five years as state fire marshal he's never seen such a high number of fire deaths so early in a year.
"We're on a course here if this continues to have over 100 fatalities — I hope that's not the case. If it would that would be a much larger number that we usually would anticipate," he said. "This just doesn't have a specific point of reference where you can say, 'OK, we've got to focus on a certain group to correct this.' It's been across many areas."
Many of the deaths occurred during the winter, Greeson said, and some were sparked by people using alternative means to stay warm. In February, five people, including two children, died in a house fire in the southern Indiana town of Sulphur that was sparked by a wood stove serving as the home's heating source.
Other instances involved people who fell asleep while smoking or returned home hungry early in the morning, sometimes after drinking, and fell asleep after they put some food on the stove.
Although the causes of the fires were wide-ranging, Greeson said that in more than half of this year's cases the homes or apartments hit by deadly fires either did not have a smoke alarm or had one that was not functioning.
Indiana law requires that every one- or two-family dwelling is required to have at least one smoke alarm, he said. And landlords are required to install a working smoke alarm in rental units.
John Erickson, a spokesman for the State Fire Marshal's office, said a compilation of the state's fire death totals for 2011 and 2010 were not available Friday for comparison to this year and 2012. He said those figures might be available next week.
Indianapolis, the state's most populous city, reflects Indiana's deadly fire trend, said Fred Pervine, battalion chief fire marshal for the Indianapolis Fire Department. He said the city has had seven fire deaths as of Friday, compared with five for all of 2012.
This year's fatalities include the May 20 deaths of two children, ages 8 and 10, in a condo fire on the city's far east side that also injured their mother and two teenagers.
Pervine said Friday that the cause of that fire remains under investigation. While the home had at least one smoke alarm, he said it hasn't been determined whether the device was working.
Pervine said one of this year's Indianapolis fire deaths involved a case where a home had a smoke alarm but it didn't have batteries in it — a situation he said is not uncommon but infuriates fire service professionals given that the life-saving technology is simple and inexpensive.
"Our problem is that we can't protect people from themselves. I've been in houses where they had a new smoke detector still in the box sitting on the table and never installed," he said.
Greeson said many of Indiana's fire departments have free smoke alarms available for low-income residents.
In light of the recent increase of fire deaths he said his office is encouraging the state's fire departments to reach out to building supply stores, insurance companies and philanthropic groups that perform charity work to suggest they donate more smoke alarms the departments could then distribute.
Greeson said Indiana has also applied for a $300,000 federal grant for purchasing smoke alarms that would be distributed to local fire departments for just that purpose.