‘We might see one fire death in a year. But three in one week? That’s very abnormal.’

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Having three people die in fires in one week is not common in Whatcom County.

In fact, it wasn’t even a full week — it happened in five days plus a few hours.

“It is rare,” Bellingham Fire Department Assistant Chief Bill Hewett told The Bellingham Herald this week. “It is abnormal, that’s for sure. For all of Whatcom County — all the cities and out in the county — we might see one fire death in a year. But three in one week? That’s very abnormal. But this has been an extraordinary week.”

According to data provided by Whatcom County Health Department Communications Specialist Melissa Morin, the county had 12 deaths that were due to fire or burns in the 11 years from 2007 to 2017 — the most recent year data has been finalized. There were only three years during that stretch with multiple fire- or burn-related deaths — including five in 2013 — but from 2015 to ‘17 there was only one.

Whatcom County Medical Examiner Dr. Gary Goldfogel told The Bellingham Herald in an email that two of the three recent fire victims have been identified:

Greg J. Lulay, 63, died in a fire late Feb. 4 in the 4900 block of Guide Meridian north of Bellingham.

Norman A. Lewis, 89, died in a residential fire late Feb. 7 in the 700 block of Wendell Way in Glenhaven.

Goldfogel said both presumptively died of asphyxia from smoke inhalation.

In an email Friday, Goldfogel said the victim in the third fire, which occurred early Feb. 10 in the 3400 block of Broad Street, has not yet been identified.

While Whatcom County Fire fire inspector Mitch Nolze said the cause of the Wendell Way fire was determined to be accidental due to a wood stove malfunction, the cause of the Guide Meridian fire was undetermined due to the extent of the damage.

Hewett said the same was true of the Broad Street fire, where the cause could not be determined.

“There just wasn’t anything left,” Hewett told The Herald. “We were called for a large orange glow in the sky east of the freeway. When our crews arrived, they had to hunt around to find access to where the ball of fire was coming from. By the time we were on scene, the house was completely destroyed. That fire already had been burning for quite a time before 911 was called.”

Not a normal call, and definitely not a normal week — or two weeks, now..

According to a Feb. 11 Facebook post by the Bellingham Fire Department, crews responded to 426 calls for service between Feb. 4 and Feb. 11 — nearly 60 per day. With Monday’s, Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s snow, this week’s count figures to be high, as well.

“This has been an abnormally busy time,” Hewett told The Herald. “Crews have definitely been running on a number of calls. And it’s not just fire calls — EMS calls have also been high, too, as people are having cold- and snow-related problems.

“It’s not just us, either. If you look at North Whatcom and Lynden, and (Whatcom County) Fire District 17 and District 11, District 14 and District 7, everybody has had one or two calls for fires per day. Everybody in the county has been really busy.”

While Hewett said the cause of the calls vary from response to response, there is one underlying reason why business has been so busy for Whatcom County fire departments. Turns out it’s the same thing you’ve probably been cursing much of the last two weeks — the weather.

“Everybody is getting hammered by the weather,” said District 7 Chief Larry Hoffman, who said his crews have seen the number of alarms per day jump from an average of 12 to 18 during the recent winter weather. “It’s just a matter of getting through this weather. When there’s snow on the ground, it slows our response, and then you’ve got the wind. Wind and fire are not a good mix.”

District 7 crews know that first hand, as a structure fire early Feb. 9 in the 5800 block of Cedar Street in Ferndale displaced a family four, Hoffman said, when 40 to 50 mph winds spread flames that started on the back porch to the house.

“It’s a good reminder — if you do anything outside with fire, including smoking, make sure it’s completely out,” Hoffman said. “Even if it’s in an ash bucket sitting outside for three days, there can be enough heat with the winds we get here to cause problems.”

Winds also have a tendency to knock down power lines, which can create their own problems, including igniting vegetation that is dehydrated by the dry, arctic Fraser Valley blasts.

While District 7 was busy with the fire on Cedar Street, Bellingham and District 8 crews helped fill in on a call for a vegetation fire along Slater Road that was started by downed power lines.

And there have been countless others throughout the county, including a blaze that destroyed three houses along Noon and Pole roads Feb. 9.

And despite that volume and long hours, area firefighters have answered the challenges the past two weeks.

“These guys care deeply for the community and they’re good people,” Hewett told The Herald. “When major events come up, they are forced to put home and family on hold and step in for the greater good. I couldn’t be prouder of the people that work for us. They’re a great group, and they’ve been working hard through some very difficult situations the last couple of weeks.”

Unfortunately, the National Weather Service is predicting the winter weather will continue into next week, meaning they may need to wait for a well-deserved reprieve.

National Weather Service Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Fortunately, there are things each of us can do during cold snaps to help reduce their workload and, more importantly, reduce the likelihood they show up at our front doors with lights rolling.

“The (public service announcement) to get out there is for people during the winter to check their fire alarms — make sure they’re working and they have one in every room,” Nolze told The Herald last week. “Same thing goes for carbon monoxide alarms (on every floor in your house). And you want to make sure your wood stoves and fireplaces are maintained and clean and that your heating appliances are kept good distances away from combustibles. We see an increase in the number of fires during the winter time.”

Winter fire and safety tips

The Washington State Fire Marshal’s Office this week offered these tips to consider during the winter:

▪ Keep space heaters a minimum of three feet away from anything that can burn.

▪ Plug space heaters directly into an outlet, not a power strip or extension cord.

▪ Never leave a space heater unattended.

▪ Use space heaters that protect against tip overs.

▪ If you use an extension cord, make sure it doesn’t have defects, such as loose connections, damaged plugs or cracked insulation.

▪ Extension cords must be rated for the capacity of the device being powered.

▪ Keep paths clear of all tripping hazards, including power cords.

▪ Ensure fireplaces and wood stoves have three feet of clearance around the front and sides.

▪ Keep children at least three feet away from fireplaces, wood stoves and space heaters.

▪ Watch the ice. Melting and refreezing can cause a significant walking hazard.

▪ Keep your walkways clear of snow to prevent ice. Spread de-icer on critical walkways to keep them safe.

▪ Ensure that your smoke detectors are working in every sleeping area and on every level of your home and have accessible fire extinguishers.

▪ Clear snow away from fire hydrants (at least three feet) to help fire departments if they do need to respond.

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.