Fatal fires took a toll on N.D., Minn. families in 2017

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FARGO — In February, a fire at a home in Carrington, N.D., took the lives of three children.

To much of the world, it was a sad news story.

For Dawn and Brandon Tufte, it was much more.

"They were our world," Dawn Tufte said, referring to the couple's three children: Spencer, 7, Melody, 8, and Alex, 11, who died in the fire.

Tufte said unless someone experiences such a loss themselves, it may not be possible to understand what the fire took from them.

"We lost the most important thing that was dear to us," she said.

People have reached out to help the family, and some of the compassion has come from far away. Dawn Tufte said a quilt made for the couple by the Thompson, N.D., community was pieced together with quilt squares from as far away as Germany and Hawaii.

Tufte said a hard lesson learned from the fire was the importance of having a sufficient number of smoke detectors and making sure they are in good working order.

"Make sure you test them," she said.

Across the U.S., the overall fire death rate fell nearly 22 percent from 2006 to 2015, continuing a decline that has been happening for decades, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

But as the Carrington fire proved, fires still kill and injure people.

An investigation report obtained from the North Dakota fire marshal's office concluded that the fire at the Tufte home was accidental, caused by a space heater that was plugged into an extension cord.

Statewide fatal fire numbers for 2017 were not available for North Dakota. However, a search of The Forum's archives showed that the three fire deaths in Carrington may have been the state's only fire deaths in 2017.

The most recent official statewide numbers indicate fires caused eight deaths in North Dakota in 2016. Numbers for previous years include: five fire deaths in 2015, six in 2014, 10 in 2013, and four in 2012.

As of Dec. 20, Minnesota reported 57 fire-related deaths in 2017. This official number does not yet include six people killed in Minnesota fires since Christmas Day, which brings the number of such deaths this year to 63, the most in nearly 15 years.

Of the recent fire deaths, four family members, including two children, died from injuries suffered in a fire in Hibbing on Dec. 26, and a Lakeville man died the same day in a house fire there. In Marshall, one person died in a house fire on Christmas Day.

Minnesota reported 57 fire deaths in 2015; 44 deaths in both 2014 and 2013; and 50 fire deaths in 2012.

Fire deaths, injuries in Fargo-Moorhead

Two fatal fires occurred in Moorhead in 2017.

One was an apartment fire on March 15 that claimed the life of Billi Jo Larson, 58. The blaze was blamed on smoking materials in a bedroom.

The other fatal fire in Moorhead happened on April 14, killing Phillip Sigurd Skatvold, 68. The fire was blamed on a baseboard heater.

Fargo reported no fire deaths in 2017. The city's last fire death was in 2013, according to Doug Nelson, a fire inspector with the Fargo Fire Department.

Nelson said most structure fires in Fargo are caused by cooking. Smoking materials are the second leading cause.

While there were no fatal fires in Fargo this year, people were injured by fires, including four who were injured when overheated electrical equipment started a house fire on Dec. 17.

One of the victims was taken to a burn unit at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.

'Get out and stay out'

Nelson said the fire prevention efforts of the Fargo Fire Department and other fire departments around the country are likely a major factor in the nation's ongoing decline in fatal fire rates.

He said some of the most effective messages continue to be the importance of making sure homes have smoke detectors and that they work, and reminding people that when a fire occurs "get out and stay out."

Bruce West, the Minnesota state fire marshal, said the leading causes of structure fires in Minnesota are cooking fires and fires caused by heaters.

He said the leading cause of fatal fires is careless smoking.

West said anyone who smokes indoors needs a safe way to get rid of cigarettes, such as putting them out in sand or water, or in a sturdy ashtray.

West said space heaters should never be used with extension cords because the cords can overheat and start fires. Also, he said, heaters should always have at least 3 feet of open space around them to prevent combustibles from catching fire.

"The other thing is, when you go to bed at night, turn them off," West said.