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2009 fire deaths projected to be lowest on record

The Department of Public Safety State Fire Marshal Division reports that Minnesota's projected number of fire deaths in 2009 will be the lowest since record keeping began in 1970.

The preliminary count of 32 represents a 20 percent drop from the previous record low of 40, which occurred in 2007. The 2009 number may rise as hospitals submit fatality reports (preliminary numbers come only from fire departments) but historically, hospital reports number five or fewer.

State Fire Marshal officials cite the declining number of smokers as one reason for dwindling fire deaths. Careless smoking, typically the number-one cause of fire fatalities, is blamed for four fatalities in 2009; in 2007, that number was eight.

Nine of last year's fire-related deaths were caused by other human errors, including combustible materials too close to a heat source, careless open-air burning, unattended cooking and unattended candles.

The locations of 2009 fire fatalities varied. Twenty Minnesota counties suffered one death each, with 12 deaths taking place in the five counties of Aitkin (2), Becker (3), Hennepin (3), Jackson (2) and Waseca (2). As in previous years, most victims - 69 percent in 2009 - died at home.

Preliminary statistics show that none of the 2009 fire victims were killed where working smoke alarms were present; 15 deaths occurred where alarms were missing or not operating, or where the presence and condition of alarms was undetermined.

State officials also credit stricter fire and building codes along with public education for saving lives.

"Public education builds awareness and encourages people to take responsibility for preventing fires - and that's what prevents fire deaths," said Bob Dahm, chief deputy state fire marshal. "In the end, fire prevention is our most effective tool."