As Stephanie Bowers sifted through the charred remains of her mother’s books, she paused and cried. Bowers’ mother, Cheryl Roop, 59, died in a trailer home fire in Mitchell, S.C. early on Sept. 29.
Now living in Missoula, Mont., Bowers drove to Mitchell when she heard about the fire. Family members were able to retrieve some mementos of her mother’s life, which Bowers said has provided some small comfort.
Scenes like that have been all too common this year in Mitchell.
Fires caused an estimated $1,390,876 in property damage in the city through August, already more than five times last year’s total of $254,365, according to monthly reports prepared by the Mitchell Fire Division. In that same time period, the total number of fires, 62, already eclipses last year’s total of 57, the reports say.
And those numbers don’t yet include last month, when two homes were destroyed by fire. Another number not reflected in the reports is the two people who have died in fires this year.
“It’s an unusual trend,” said Assistant Fire Chief Paul Morris. “It’s a definite bump in numbers for us.”
Through August, the city had an average of almost eight fires per month, with an average loss of more than $25,000 per incident. Month to month, though, the number and cost of fires can vary widely.
In January, reports say just two fires did $750,000 in damage, but in July, 12 fires — the highest monthly total so far this year — did only $7,000 in damage. Most, if not all, of the $750,000 in damage done in January is linked to a Jan. 2 fire that destroyed a large home near Lake Mitchell.
Chief of Public Safety Lyndon Overweg said it’s that type of incident that can inflate property damage totals.
A report for September is not yet available, but a fire Sept. 22 at a modular home in eastern Mitchell and another fire Saturday at a trailer home in western Mitchell both resulted in total losses. The value of the modular home is estimated at $30,000, and the value of the trailer home is estimated at $3,000.
Despite the trend, officials agree there have been no commonalities among the fires. “We can’t really point at one thing and say that is what has been causing all these fires,” Morris said.
Mitchell Fire Marshal Marius Laursen described the incidents as “random acts of fire.”
Besides continuing to promote common-sense fire safety, Overweg said there isn’t anything special the Mitchell Fire Division can do to reverse the trend. Overweg and other officials have repeatedly emphasized the importance of smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.
On Oct. 13, the Mitchell Fire Division will give away 270 smoke detectors at Walmart from noon to 2 p.m.
Having an escape plan in case of fire is also essential, Overweg said, because smoke can quickly obscure escape routes.
“It is completely black,” he said. “It’s going to be like exiting a house with your eyes closed.”
The advice fits with the theme of this year’s National Fire Prevention Week, which begins Sunday, of “Have 2 Ways Out.” According to a Tuesday news release from the state Department of Public Safety, the theme is meant to teach that “a good fire safety plan includes more than one exit strategy from a burning home.”
Properly disposing of cigarettes and having household appliances like dryers or furnaces checked yearly for defects are also important safety measures, Laursen said.
“The number of fires we’ve had has brought fire safety to the forefront of everyone’s mind,” Morris said.
Two people have died in fires this year in Mitchell. In addition to Roop, on April 21, 3-year-old Jaxon Sehnert died of smoke inhalation after a fire at his family’s home at 222 W. Sixth Ave.
“They’re two tragedies in our community that we certainly don’t want to see anywhere,” Morris said.
Morris hopes the number of fires in Mitchell this year will make people more conscious of fire safety.