December 03. 2012 3:49PM

Wood ashes caused fatal Tuftonboro house fire

Union Leader Correspondent

Fire investigators determined that improperly disposed hot ashes caused the Nov. 16 fire on Barber Pole Road. Larissa Mulkern/Union Leader Correspondent 
TUFTONBORO - Fire investigators are blaming careless disposal of wood ashes for causing the early-morning Nov. 16 house fire that killed an 80-year-old woman.

The fire was deemed accidental.

The victim, Deborah "Debbie" V. Cary, perished after the fast-moving fire, which began just outside the house, tore through the two-story, wood-frame waterfront home shortly after 1 a.m. Her husband, Richard "Dick" Cary, called 911, but when the fire/rescue crews arrived just 13 minutes later, Mrs. Cary was trapped inside.

Mr. Cary escaped without injury. A firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation at Huggins Hospital and released the same day.

The Carys are well known in the community where Mr. Cary, an architect, served on the town's new fire station committee. Mrs. Cary was a juried weaver with the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. Before retiring to New Hampshire, Mrs. Cary worked as a school psychologist in the Boston, Mass., school system and served in the Peace Corps in Tunisia with her husband. She also started a school in Kuwait for learning disabled children, according to her obituary.

Initially, fire investigators suspected that a ruptured gas line fueled the blaze at the home, located on Barber Pole Road on Lake Winnipesaukee. However, investigators say the ruptured line was not the cause of the fire although some propane leaked before firefighters stopped the flow.

On Monday, John Raymond of the N.H. Fire Marshal's Office reported that improperly disposed wood ashes caused the fire. He said earlier in the day Mr. Cary had cleaned out the wood stove and placed the ashes in a container outside on the deck, about four feet away from the house. The fire started outside the house and while it did burn off the regulator on the propane tank, most of the propane leaked upwards into the air, he said.

The home did have working smoke detectors, which all homes should have, he added, but since the fire started outdoors, the detectors did not activate. Raymond said it was essential, especially with more residents using wood and pellet stoves as primary or secondary heat sources, for people to take great care when disposing of hot coals and ashes. He said coals have been known to stay hot for three or four days after they are taken out of a fireplace or stove. Ashes should be stored in a solid metal container with a lid and placed as far away from the home and flammable objects as possible.

Residents can also soak the ashes and coals completely with water, stir up the ashes and then dump the ashes away from the home.

He urged homeowners to read the manufacturer's instructions on all alternative and primary heating systems and to maintain them according to the recommendations.

"We're going to see more and more of these systems as fuel prices go up. Electricity is cheaper. There are so many (options)," he said. Some systems are not meant as primary heat sources, he noted. Keeping chimneys maintained and inspected by a reputable mason is another fire-prevention step. But the biggest fire-safety device is still a working smoke detector.

He said most fatal fires are in homes with no working smoke detectors.

"We still see in some cases where detectors are not working or have been taken down. So having working smoke detectors and maintaining your heating system are two of the biggest things," Raymond said. And, in the event of fire, get out and stay out. Do not go back in for anything, he said.