West Virginia is in mourning after a devastating fire in Randolph County this week. Our hearts are broken. Those who perished include four children: an 11-year-old, a 4-year-old, and 2-year-old twins.
Sadly, these precious lives aren't the only ones lost to fire this year. The death toll from fires in the Mountain State since Jan. 1 now exceeds 50. West Virginia leads all other states for its fire fatality rate, according to the latest federal figures. West Virginians are more than three times more likely to die in a fire than the general U.S. population.
These tragedies are also often preventable. Investigators say the home in Elkins had no working smoke detectors. Investigators also suspect that a cigarette may have sparked this fire. Careless smoking is a major cause of fires in the home. So is leaving stoves unattended while cooking, overloading electrical outlets and not following the safety rules and instructions for home heating devices.
Together, we can turn the troubling statistics around. Develop and practice a home escape plan. Install and maintain smoke alarms near sleeping areas. Replace alarm batteries once a year, such as when you turn your clocks back for Daylight Savings Time this Sunday, Nov. 3. Have your home heating system inspected before you turn it on for the winter. Use only space heaters that meet the latest safety standards. Consider adding fire sprinklers, which can greatly increase fire survival rates when used with alarms.
Help is available. In Kanawha County, for instance, a $6,000 grant will allow emergency officials to hand out smoke detectors and install them in homes for free. Nearly half the state's fire departments offer a smoke alarm program. Senior centers can also provide assistance, as can such groups as the Appalachian Center for Independent Living that work with the disabled.
Fire departments throughout West Virginia can apply for Assistance to Firefighters grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This funding can help them with smoke alarm programs and other safety and education efforts.
I want to thank the thousands of West Virginians who are on the front line of this battle as members of our 442 volunteer and paid fire departments. Others in this fight include the Office of the State Fire Marshal, which has made safety and prevention education a major part of its mission. Deputy Fire Marshal Carol Nolte has helped lead those efforts as the longtime director of the Public Education Division. Nolte retired this week, and I am sure our fellow West Virginians are appreciative of her service in this important area.