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Fire Risk in Maine Tied to Social and Economic Status
03/13/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

So far this winter in Maine, at 12 people have been killed in house fires. Over the weekend, a 36-year-old man became the latest fatality in Presque Isle. Officials say there were no working smoke detectors in Shawn Withington's mobile home. And as Jennifer Mitchell reports, research suggests that socioeconomics often play a role in whether a house is at risk for fire in the first place.

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Fire Risk in Maine Tied to Social and Economic Sta Listen
 Duration:
3:35

So far this winter in Maine, at least nine people have been killed in house fires. Over the weekend, a 36-year-old man became the latest fatality in Presque Isle. Officials say there were no working smoke detectors in Shawn Withington's mobile home. And as Jennifer Mitchell reports, research suggests that socioeconomics often play a role in whether a house is at risk for fire in the first place.

They live in one of the oldest homes in Lincoln, and like many Mainers, Kathy and Kim - who did not wish to use their last names - struggle to make ends meet.

Kathy is minding the home for the owner who, as she puts it, "fell on some very hard times." He's currently incarcerated and has no money to put into the place. Kim is disabled. She only recently started living independently and is on a fixed income.

Meanwhile, the home is feeling every one of its almost 200 years. The roof needs replacing, the basement sometimes fills with water, and the unlined chimney, with its multiple flues, is not legal under fire code. And the back-up furnace has problems too.

"Circulator's broken, the nozzle is wrong. It - it's really not safe," Kim says. "We turned it on and the fire box has been welded and I just didn't want to take the chance. We just didn't have the extra money to have - to put into having someone come."

That means that Kim is burning wood through a chimney that the fire department has deemed unsafe. It's a snapshot of a newspaper headline in the making, because Kim's situation puts her smack in the middle of fire risk statistics in Maine.

"You know, consequently it comes down to choices. They're going to make a choice," says Lincoln Fire Chief Phillip Dawson. "Do I eat? Or do I pay my house bill so that I don't get evicted?"

Dawson says people all over his area are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to fire safety. And that means so is he. He can't do anything about unsafe installations except wait with "white knuckles" for that desperate call in the middle of the night.

"All we can try to do is reassure them that we're only there for their safety," Dawson says. "We're not there to hassle them. We want them to be safe. We don't want to have to come over there and have to fight a structure fire."

Maine follows the nation in a few fire trends. In one study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, poverty and the age of a home were considered two big factors in establishing risk. The latter factor is relevant to Maine, which has some of the oldest homes in the country. But more than this, the biggest risk factor for fire fatality in Maine is something else.

"Educational attainment came up with the highest score on the model I used to look at Maine fire fatality," says Richard Taylor, senior researcher with the state Fire Marshall's Office in Augusta. His fire fatality report - the most recent of its kind - tracked the years between 1983 and 1993 and found that the less education someone has, the greater the risk of dying in a fire.

In addition, the elder population and those living on fixed incomes showed disproportionate risk. While he doesn't have all the answers, he says, changing the way fire education is disseminated might help. For example, the state could enlist other social organizations and caregivers to assist.

"So that when they're going into the homes, they're not just going there to - delivering meals on wheels - but rather they're going in there and they're going to add to the potpourri of ideas: 'Geez Mrs. Smith, you're missing a smoke detector and you really should have this,'" Taylor says.

But, as Taylor points out, all the education in the world about fire code isn't going to help people afford to fix their chimneys, maintain their furnaces, or even install smoke detectors.

Kathy in Lincoln says she knows she's not alone. "Most people are living paycheck to paycheck, trying to get through the winter and some people don't have jobs at all," she says. "So, we don't have any money but we're doing the best we can."



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