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February 19. 2012 11:05PM

In wake of Manchester fires, officials remind of cigarette dangers


Abigail Starin, facing camera, hugs an unidentified neighbor after visiting her burned out apartment on Thursday. Starin was rescued from the Eastern Avenue fire early on Thursday morning. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
MANCHESTER — City fire officials are stressing the importance of properly disposing of smoking materials, following three fires last week caused by improper disposal of cigarettes – two of which displaced dozens of residents – and one that was seconds away from taking lives.

“We can't stress it enough, and we're not just talking about the loss of property here,” said District Chief Mike Gamache.

“It may not be a malicious act at all. It can be something as simple as just flicking a cigarette, out of habit. But we are taking about the real threat of loss of life here, plus millions in dollars of damage. People need to be aware of where they dispose of these materials.”

Three families were displaced from an apartment building at 94 South Maple St., after a person passing by on a bicycle reported at 2:56 a.m. Saturday that they saw flames coming from the home.

Investigators said the fire started on a second-floor balcony after residents disposed of cigarettes in a plastic bucket. Material inside the bucket ignited and flames spread quickly up the exterior walls to the roof. Everyone in the home got out safely, and no firefighters were injured.

That followed a four-alarm fire at Deer Haven Preserve on Eastern Avenue early Thursday morning, which destroyed a condominium building and caused minor injuries to three firefighters.

One resident of that building was treated for smoke inhalation.

Investigators determined that fire started when someone discarded a cigarette outside the building, which ignited a portion of the vinyl siding and the structure quickly went up. Some residents were rescued from a balcony.

Gamache said it could have been much worse.

“We were seconds away from losing lives on Eastern Avenue,” Gamache said. “An action that someone does, just out of habit, like flicking a cigarette, came that close to costing residents and firefighters there lives. And it wasn't anything they were doing maliciously – they probably didn't even think twice about it.”

Gamache said there was a third fire last week that also was caused by careless disposal of cigarettes, but received little, if any, media coverage. He said a cigarette thrown into a bucket on the front porch of a home at 1110 Goffstown Road ignited at 11:15 p.m. Feb. 14, and that someone passing by phoned it in.

“We responded and put it out before any damage was done to the home,” Gamache said.

According to a recent report by the United States Fire Administration, fires caused by cigarettes kill more than 2,300 people in the United States each year.

Local, state, and national fire statistics all list cigarette-caused fires as the leading cause of fire fatalities. Additionally, fires caused by cigarette smoking produce about 6,000 injuries a year.

Gamache said he sees the situation worsening in the coming weeks if the recent trend of careless disposal of cigarettes continues.

“With the winter we've had, I expect a very dry spring and summer, and that means an active brush fire season,” Gamache said. “You see cigarettes tossed out of car windows every day. One spark – that's all it takes. The wind takes it, and that's it. It could be a very busy season for us.

“All we're asking is that people take care when disposing of their smoking materials,” Gamache said. “Whether you think it will or not, it can lead to a life-or-death situation for someone.”

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