Rising Valley fire fatalities are reminder of safety need.
Judi Villa
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 25, 2003 12:00 AM

House fire deaths in Phoenix spiked last year to the highest level in half a decade, even as the overall number of residential fires fell.

Across the Valley, more people died in fires last year than in 2001, and only Tempe reported a decrease in fire deaths.

The numbers buck a national trend, which shows that house fire deaths declined 34 percent from 1980 to 2000.

"This should not be happening," Glendale fire Capt. Elio Pompa said. "We're a very, very lax society. We'll point the finger the other way. 'It's not going to happen to me. It's going to happen to you. . . . I'm bulletproof.'

"Somebody needs to point the finger back and say we're not bulletproof. We need to slow down and be a little safer."

In Phoenix last year, only two fire victims had smoke detectors that functioned properly. In more than half of the 11 fatal fires, there was no smoke detector at all.

There are no signs of change in 2003. Already this month, a Glendale woman and a Phoenix man have died in home fires.

"Help me! I'm burning! God help me! I'm hurting," Pamela Gant, 34, cried when she emerged Jan. 4 from the burning shed where she had been living behind her parents' Glendale home.

Flames had singed away her hair and burned 80 percent of her body. She died the next morning after her mother held her in her arms, told her, "I love you," and decided to let her go.

"I wish I could trade places with her," said Gant's mother, Naomi. "I'd give the world if I could have her back."

Fire officials say a burning candle started the blaze that killed Gant. The shed had a bed, a computer and power cords running from the main house, but no smoke detector.

Gant's parents, who had repeatedly asked their daughter to sleep inside where it was warmer, said they worried about the cold but didn't think about fire.

"It never crossed my mind that anything like that would happen," said Gant's father, Ivan. "It's just one of those things, you never know."

Assistant Phoenix Fire Chief Bob Khan said that even though about 90 percent of homes have smoke detectors, only half have working batteries.

As a result, firefighters in some cities have gone door-to-door checking and installing smoke detectors.

"If people are dying out there because of a 9-volt battery, we need to work on that," Khan said. "People need to understand it can happen to them. They're not paying attention to the one thing that could keep them alive."

The majority of the Valley's fire deaths are preventable, officials say. Many of the causes go back to carelessness and inattention: pots left unattended on the stove, candles left burning when no one is around, improperly stored flammable liquids, smoking in bed and children playing with matches.

Only a few fires, like the one that killed Edwin Deering, 63, this month in Phoenix, are electrical and, therefore, harder to prevent. Still, Deering's home didn't have a smoke detector.

"It just happens so quick and people think, 'Aw, no big deal. Nothing's going to happen,' " said Battalion Chief Tim VanScoter of the Sun City Fire Department. "You've got to remind yourself it does happen. Ask yourself, 'If it does happen to us, what are we going to do?' "

Last year, 19 Valley people, including a 2-year-old Phoenix girl, died in house fires. Phoenix's deaths jumped to 11, from seven in 2001, while home fires decreased nearly 16 percent.

"People want to feel safe at home, but there's a difference between feeling safe and being complacent," Khan said. "A lot of people are complacent. They assume they're not going to have a problem, and that's when it'll bite you in the rear end. That fire will get you."

The key, he said, is to have working smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and an escape plan. "It falls right back on the individual," Pompa said. "These people have to look in the mirror and say, 'Who's responsible for you?' Well, you are. Why don't you put a battery in the smoke detector? That's priceless."


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Pamela Gant, 34, died a day after suffering burns to 80 percent of her body. She had no smoke detector.