Fire season arrives at your home
Woman, 73, 8th person to die in '04 domicile blaze

Emily Bittner
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 26, 2004 12:00 AM

Onita Pendergraft, three days shy of her 74th birthday, was found lying in her hallway, out of the wheelchair she relied on.

She was the eighth person to die in a fire in Phoenix this year. Investigators don't yet know what caused the early Monday morning fire at her mobile home in the 2000 block of West Dunlap Avenue.

Her death put Phoenix on par with last year's fire death toll as the winter fire season begins.

Of the other victims, only one - Musa Abdi, who ran back into his burning apartment to get his immigration papers - had a smoke detector.

Fire officials say in most cases, if the victims had been more careful, the fires wouldn't have cost them their lives. Almost 90 percent of people who perish in fires nationally die because they don't have working smoke detectors.

"A lot of people have the misconception . . . that they have several minutes to get out of a working fire," said Phoenix Assistant Fire Chief Bob Khan. "You typically have about three minutes before you get to the point that it's untenable."

As the chill of late fall and early winter brings more potential for fires, authorities are warning residents to be cautious.

Space heaters, fireplaces and stoves are some of the biggest culprits in home fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Several Mesa residents have been injured in fires when they've left candles burning, too, said Deputy Fire Chief Mary Cameli. Tragedies can be prevented as easily as remembering to blow them out when leaving the house.

"That could be the one thing that prevents you from being injured or your house from burning down," Cameli said. "It's tragic when it's something that's so preventable."

Although Phoenix has tied last year's death total, the city is still short of the record 11 deaths in 2002. That total appears to be an anomaly after years of steady decline nationally in fire deaths.

So far this year, at least 11 Valley residents have been killed in house fires. The causes are as varied as the victims.

In Abdi's apartment, someone left the stove on.

A homeless man died last winter when the barrel he lit for warmth caught him on fire.

Another man was the victim of arson last month when a fellow patient in the assisted care facility where he lived lit a mattress on fire.

Manuel Burciaga, 74, died a few days later. Michael W. Couch, 50 was arrested on charges of first-degree murder and arson in connection with the fire.

A 62-year-old woman died in January when one of two things happened, according to investigators: she didn't properly dispose of cigarettes or a space heater caught trash on fire.

A 78-year-old man left his truck running in his garage in May and the air ignited.

Investigators are still looking into a fire that killed a 44-year-old woman in October. She suffered fatal burns over 90 percent of her body.

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-4783. Brent Whiting contributed to this article.