ATLANTA - Georgia could see fewer than 100 fire deaths this year - the lowest toll in nearly a decade - thanks to warm weather expected for rest of the year, according to statistics from the state Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner's Office.
"Most of our fatal fires do occur with people trying to keep warm," Commissioner John Oxendine said Monday in a telephone interview. "That is the No. 1 killer, so when you have a mild winter, that really does help."
Statewide, the total number of fire fatalities has been declining steadily since 2004, when 135 were killed in fires. Over the past decade, the number of fire fatalities statewide has risen and fallen, from a high of 196 in 1995 to a low of 97 in 1997 - the last year in which fewer than 100 people died. So far this year, 94 people have died in fires in Georgia.
Mr. Oxendine said the number - when balanced with population growth - has been consistently declining since 1995.
"Because we started doing fire safety education, we've seen consistent drops," he said.
Many of the fires happen in northwest Georgia - the coldest part of the state, where people may use wood-burning stoves or kerosene heaters to stay warm - or in southwest Georgia, with many rural areas lacking central heat.
"There are more primitive heating conditions that you find in those areas, and that opens itself up for more accidents," Mr. Oxendine said.
Most fire deaths occur during the winter months. Portable heaters were blamed for as many as 22 deaths in 2003, but that number has dwindled to four this year. Three years ago, Oxendine started a space heater education tour, telling Georgians not to use portable heaters near clothing, drapes, furniture or other flammable materials. The number of deaths tied to space heaters dropped to 12 in 2004, 10 in 2005 and six so far this year.
The insurance commissioner's office also began providing free smoke detectors to people who cannot afford them, and has given away over 130,000 smoke detectors in the past 10 years, Mr. Oxendine said.
In Glynn County, in the southeast part of the state, Deputy Fire Chief Ray Marat said he could not remember when someone in the area last died in a fire. Firefighters saw numerous fires where smoke detectors were not present or weren't working in homes, and started a free smoke detector program, giving away up to 300 smoke detectors a year.