This year is on pace to match, if not exceed, the number of fire related deaths in Minnesota.

In 2019, there were 47 fire-related deaths in Minnesota, according to data compiled by the State Fire Marshal’s Office. In 2020, 43 people have died so far, with nearly three months yet to go in the year.

Fires can be not only dangerous but deadly, fire officials said, and keeping people and loved ones safe from fire should always be top of mind. This week, Oct. 4-10, is Fire Prevention Week, and fire officials across the state say it is a good reminder for people to make sure they have fire extinguishers up to date in their home or business, they have a fire escape plan in place and they know the basic facts on what to do if they come across a fire.

The No. 1 source of fires is the kitchen, according to Brainerd Fire Chief Tim Holmes and the State Fire Marshal’s Office, which compiles data each year. Its yearly report includes 754 of 775 fire departments in the state who submit data through the Minnesota Fire Incident Reporting System.

Brainerd firefighters at 7:11 p.m. Tuesday responded to an oven fire on Riverside Drive in Brainerd. Fire crews extinguished a small fire and ventilated the residence. This fire wasn’t the first and, based on past statistics, most likely won’t be the last fire reported this year that started in the kitchen. In the last five years, a quarter of fire-related incidents in Brainerd have originated in the kitchen. This year, the Brainerd Fire Department has responded to 136 fire alarms and 25% of them were caused by burned food.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

And it doesn’t matter if the structure is a residential property, a business, a store, office or educational facility — cooking remains the leading cause of fires in all types of buildings, mainly due to contained cooking fires.

According the 2019 state fire report, the top four known factors in cooking fires are:

  • Unattended equipment at 21%;

  • Combustibles too close at 14%;

  • Both equipment turned on or accidentally/not turned off and abandoned or discarded materials at 10%.

Fires in residential properties represented 75% of all structure fires and 49% of the total dollar loss in 2019, according to the 2019 state fire marshal's fire report. Of the 13,178 fire calls in Minnesota last year, 6,521 were structure fires. There were three cooking-related civilian fire deaths and 31 civilian injuries, as well as 13 firefighter injuries in 2019. Dollar loss from cooking fires in 2019 totaled $6,027,012.

Careless burning came in second for leading causes of fires and appliances came in third. Heating fires in residential properties in 2019 include 193 fires occurring in the fireplace or chimney; 66 in fixed heating units; 16 in portable heaters; 47 in central heating units; four in water heaters and 12 in other heating items.

The majority of 2019 heating-related fires, or 338 fires, occurred in residential properties. The total number of these fires increased by 4% from last year and the dollar loss decreased by 29%.

Fire prevention and education

Educating the public on fire hazards and safety tips is important to keeping people safe, Holmes said, and this year providing that information to the public has been challenging for the Brainerd Fire Department. For the first time, the fire department is not hosting its annual open house, typically on the Thursday of Fire Prevention Week, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Holmes said about 1,000 people attend the open house each year and, even though families come and go with their children during the three-hour event, he knows there would be more than 250 people at the fire station at one time.

“We just really couldn't meet all the recommendations of the Minnesota Department of Health and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and all those that are regulating the COVID-19 regulations,” Holmes said. “So, we just have to take the year off.”

Holmes said firefighters also go to the schools to educate students on fire safety, but this also has been limited this year because of the coronavirus.

“We are trying to be as active as we can on social media and trying to disseminate some materials out on our message on fire safety,” Holmes said. “We want to keep fire safety at the forefront, no matter if it’s Fire Prevention Week or not.”

Holmes said cooking fires are a concern as they continue to be the leading cause of not only home fires, but home fire injuries.

“We will be moving through October and into November, and Thanksgiving is one of the leading days involving cooking fires or cooking equipment,” Holmes said. “So, this is important not only now but as we get into the holiday season, when we're doing a lot more cooking we just need to really pay attention to all these tips that are out there about being safe in the kitchen. So, fire safety in the kitchen is the slogan this year.”

The No. 1 safety tip in the kitchen is to never leave food cooking unattended.

“You want to stay in the kitchen while you’re cooking,” Holmes said. “If you have to leave, we recommend shutting the stove off. If you’re baking or roasting, doing a larger meal in the oven that takes two to three hours, we recommend you always stay home during this time. Also set a timer just to remind you that you’re cooking something, as some people forget.”

Another tip in the kitchen is to keep the stovetop clear, and near the stovetop clear, of items that could potentially catch on fire, such as decorations, paper towels or mail. Holmes said it is good to have oven mitts or pot holders and a lid nearby in case a grease fire starts. If this happens, people should put the lid over the fire to smother the flames, turn the burner off and leave the pan on the stovetop to cool. If a person does not have a lid, a cookie sheet also will work.

If people plan to use a turkey fryer, it is recommended to always use them outside, not in a garage or enclosed area.

“A big thing with turkey fryers is they flare up so much if you’re cooking poultry that is wet or frozen,” Holmes said. “Make sure you are following the cooking directions for the fryer and, like anything else, have an appropriate sized fire extinguisher readily available. Make sure that it works and you know how to operate it.”

Holmes said people should have a fire extinguisher in their kitchen and it wouldn’t hurt to have one in the garage or workshop area where a potential fire could occur.

Heading into the winter months, space heaters also are a leading cause of fires. It is recommended any heating equipment item has 3 feet of space around it. People should make sure children are staying away from any space heater or fireplace that has open flames and not playing around them.

“Families should have a kid-free zone in front of the fireplace or in front of a space heater,” Holmes said. “You also want to make sure the space heater is a newer model so that it doesn’t tip over and that it automatically shuts itself off.

“When talking about fireplaces, it’s recommended that you have your chimney professionally cleaned and inspected at least once a year and they would probably recommend that you clean more than that to make sure all the debris is cleared.”

Changing furnace filters every three months to reduce particle buildup is also a good practice. A clean furnace filter traps dirt and allergens and makes furnaces run more efficiently.

And when it comes to fire safety, people cannot forget about the smoke alarms. Smoke alarms are highly effective at alerting people of dangerous fire conditions, especially where people sleep.

“Smoke detectors are the easiest way and most effective way to alert a person in the early stages of fire,” Holmes said. “Smoke alarms certainly make a difference between life and death in a fire.

“I think statistically, they say that working smoke alarms will cut the risk of dying in a house fire by half. So that's significant and the biggest thing is, they have to work right. So we need to make sure that we’re testing them at least once a month, you know, pushing the button, making sure it works. I recommend changing the batteries every six months when we change our clocks back. Most of the smoke alarms have about a 10-year shelf life.”

According to the state fire report in 2019, smoke alarms activated and alerted 76% of the occupants. However, the report also stated there were 52 residential fires last year where the smoke alarm failed to alert the occupants.

Holmes said knowing safety tips for fire prevention is especially important in today’s COVID-19 world, as more people are working from home and children are doing more distance learning from home.

“We just want to make sure we are educating our kids that are home how to safely use the stove or the oven,” Holmes said. “Making sure that they understand the escape plan for the house. And we just have to be probably a little bit more diligent because they’re not getting this in school. So anything you can do at home to promote this fire safety message is what we’re going to have to do this year. It’s going to be everyone’s responsibility to kind of make sure that everyone in their household knows how things work, how to operate things and what’s the safe way to do things and not do things.”

2019 Minnesota fire statistics

  • The number of fire deaths in Minnesota increased 27% from 2018 to 2019.

  • Total deaths: 47.

  • Leading cause of death was careless smoking, claiming 10.

  • In 31% of fire fatalities, smoke alarms were absent or not operating.

  • The number of people ages 40 to 59 who died in fires more than doubled from seven in 2018 to 16 in 2019, a 129% increase.

  • Minnesota fire departments reported a 2% increase in the number of fire incident responses. There were 13,178 fire incidents reported by participating Minnesota fire departments in 2019; of these calls, 6,521 were structure fires.

  • Cooking fires remain the leading cause of structure fires in Minnesota. The dollar loss from those fires skyrocketed 64% from 2018.

  • Dollar loss from all fires was also up 21%, an increase of nearly $49 million. The total loss was nearly $278 million.

  • A majority of fires intentionally set happened in residential structures. These fires cause $5.5 million in damage in residential properties.

  • There was a 54% increase in firefighter injuries in residential settings.

2019 area fire deaths

  • A 78-year-old Brainerd woman died Jan. 4, 2019, while burning paper and garbage on a stove in the garage, when her clothes caught on fire. Family members heard screaming in the garage and found her on fire.

  • An 80-year-old man and 69-year-old woman died April 1, 2019, in a house fire in Aitkin County from careless smoking.

  • A 57-year-old Menahga man died Feb. 5, 2019, in a house fire and the cause was undetermined.

  • A 67-year-old Milaca man died June 9, 2019, in a house fire and the cause was undetermined.

The number of fire deaths since 1990 by county include 19 in Aitkin; 26 in Cass; 27 in Crow Wing; 18 in Mille Lacs; eight in Morrison; 11 in Todd; and nine in Wadena.

Brainerd reported 72 fires and 402 non-fires in 2019, with an estimated property value loss of $3.96 million.

JENNIFER KRAUS may be reached at jennifer.kraus@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5851. Follow me at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl on Twitter.