Two fatal fires in Kennewick that may have been sparked by cigarettes have fire officials urging people to be safe when they smoke and to use appropriate ashtrays.
"It just keeps coming back to careless smoking," said Kennewick Fire Marshal Mark Yaden.
On Thursday, Yaden was able to conclude the cause of the Jan. 23 blaze at a mobile home likely was caused by a cigarette left smoldering on a couch.
Elvira "Elvie" Pidcock, 65, was killed in the early-morning fire at 4815 W. Kennewick Ave. #35. Her daughter, Aireen Upton, 49, escaped by jumping out of her bedroom window and spent several weeks at a Seattle hospital being treated for serious burns and smoke inhalation.
A Feb. 5 fire at Cedars Inn also started when Connie Vanarendonk reportedly dropped a cigarette on the bed. She also had been using a Styrofoam dinner plate as an ashtray, Yaden said.
The 71-year-old Yakima woman died Friday at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Not only are the smoking-related fires deadly, but they also result in significant property damage, Yaden said, estimating the hotel fire loss at $300,000.
Fires caused by cigarettes being extinguished in potted plant containers also have caused significant property damages, he said.
"People think it's just dirt, but it's actually a mixture of dirt and moss and bark and other organic materials that is a perfect container for fire to smolder in," he said.
To avoid smoking-related fires, Yaden said people just need to be careful, avoid smoking in bed or when they are tired and use proper ashtrays -- not alternate cups, plates or potted plants.
Open flame or smoking materials -- including matches, lighters, cigarettes, flares, fuses, torches and candles -- is the second-leading known cause of fires, according to the 2010 Fire in Washington report, the latest available from the State Fire Marshal's Office.
Smoking materials historically have been reported as the leading cause of fire fatalities and in 2010 were the leading known cause of fire-related deaths, the report said. Fifteen of the 67 fire fatalities -- or 22 percent -- were in smoking-related fires.
Smoking materials also were responsible for 1,884 fires in 2010, causing $17.6 million in property loss.
Last April, a Finley woman also was killed in a fire in her mobile home after a dropped cigarette ignited newspaper on the floor.
In the January mobile home fire, Yaden said Pidcock was known to sit on the couch and smoke, and fire investigators did find an ashtray in the area. They're not sure if she dropped a cigarette or ash and didn't realize it or fell asleep on the couching while smoking, he said.
Investigators say the fire started in the living room sofa and had spread throughout the home when Pidcock discovered it. It is possible it smoldered for up to three hours before flames broke out, Yaden said.
"Aireen Upton said her mom had gone to sleep in her bedroom in the back of the house, but friends and family describe her as having trouble sleeping and it wasn't uncommon to be up at 2 or 3 a.m.," he said. "She could have gotten up and had a cigarette ... or she easily could have gone to bed and something was there (that she didn't know) and then it broke into flames later on."
Upton said everything was OK until about 3:50 a.m. when she was woken up by her mother banging on her bedroom door. When she opened the door, there was fire everywhere so she broke out her bedroom window and jumped, Yaden said.
"Pidcock would have had to go through the fire (in the living room) to get to her daughter's door," he said. "We had wondered why she didn't make it out the front door, which was a short distance, but to her credit she was warning her daughter and she wasn't going to leave her daughter without warning her that there was a fire in the house."
Her body was found in the hallway, which was near the front door and her daughter's bedroom, the Benton County coroner previously told the Herald.
Yaden said having working smoke detectors is also key, because slow-smoldering fires cause a lot of smoke and smoke detectors can provide an early warning. According to the 2010 state fire report, about two-thirds of the fatal fires occurred where there were no working smoke alarms or detectors.
"Smoke is most toxic in the smoldering state," Yaden said. "And the vast majority of people who die in fires (die) long before the flames. ... These incidents are pretty avoidable if you have a smoke detector that goes off."
A melted smoke detector was found in the mobile home, but officials suspect it wasn't working. Neighbors said they didn't hear a smoke alarm and Upton said she didn't remember hearing one after she was awoke, he said.
Statistics show that smoke detectors more than 10 years old can have a 50 percent failure rate in an actual fire, Yaden said, adding that there may be a lot of smoke alarms in Kennewick homes that may be 30 years old.