Thats how long it takes for a room to become engulfed in flames after a fire starts and how much time you have to escape, according to State Fire Marshal Paul Parisi.

Years ago, we had more time to escape a house fire, he said. Legacy furnishings and natural materials took much longer to ignite and engulf a room with fire and smoke.

But the synthetic materials in most modern home furnishings burn faster and hotter and produce much more toxic smoke, Parisi said. Two decades ago, that escape time was about 17 minutes.

Its been a deadly year for residential fires in New Hampshire. Eight people have died in seven homes; none had working smoke alarms, Parisi said.

Just last Sunday, 53-year-old Douglas Holmes was overcome by smoke and died in an apartment house fire in Colebrook.

When Colebrook firefighters arrived at the two-story wood-frame building on Main Street shortly before 7:30 a.m., they found residents on the roof and heavy smoke and fire pouring from the house. One man fell and was hurt. Firefighters rescued four others, according to Colebrook Fire Chief Brett Brooks.

Firefighters then rushed to the back of the building, where they used a ladder to rescue two more residents from an outside porch. Some time later, they learned of another apartment on the second floor.

Thats where they found Holmes, Brooks said. They didnt even realize that there was another apartment door because the smoke was that bad, he said.

There were seven apartments in the building, which was originally a church, and one unit was unoccupied. Nineteen people were displaced in the fire, including seven children.

No warning sounded

The fires cause is under investigation, but it appears the building had no working smoke alarms, Parisi said.

If they had earlier warning of the fire occurring somewhere in the building, they may have had additional time to escape, but instead their escape path was cut off because the fire took possession so quickly, Parisi said.

They didnt have that early warning, and therefore their only escape was the roof and fortunately, they were very lucky that the fire department was able to rescue them off the roof, Parisi said.

John Holmes learned of his brothers death in a call from another family member last Sunday. Doug loved the outdoors, Holmes said in a brief phone interview. Growing up, he loved to fish and he loved to hunt, he said.

The most common causes of accidental residential fires, Parisi said, include improper disposal of smoking materials or woodstove ashes, overloaded electrical circuits, chimneys that have not been cleaned or are too close to combustibles, and food or other items left on a stove.

Those are all preventable fires, he said.

While the spike in fire deaths last spring coincided with the arrival of the pandemic in New Hampshire, Parisi said investigators did not find any connection to the crisis. The individuals involved were not out of work or otherwise home because of the virus, he said.

Most unintentional fatal fires in New Hampshire occur between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., Parisi said.

Indeed, last Sundays fire could have been even more devastating had it occurred overnight, Chief Brooks said. If itd been earlier, with the smoke detectors not working, it would have been questionable whether people would have woken up, he said.

When the fire started, he said, I think most of them were up. They were getting ready to cook breakfast.

Those who lived in the basement apartment and on the first floor got out on their own, but just barely in time, the chief said. A lot of them were barefoot and in bathrobes and whatever they could grab on the way out.

Brooks said the weekend timing of the fire also brought dozens of firefighters to the scene quickly. Its a good thing it was a Sunday and not during the week, he said. Some people travel out of town for jobs.

Consider sprinklers, too

Most people think a fire will never happen to them, Parisi said. Fire does not discriminate, and when there is a fire, smoke alarms are the biggest factor when it comes to giving people time to get out alive.

Closing your bedroom door at night can also buy you critical time. The fire service has an easy-to-remember slogan to drive the message home: Close before you doze.

Most people mistakenly think its safer to leave your bedroom door open, to alert you in case of a fire, Parisi said. A 2018 survey by the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute found that only 29% of people close their bedroom doors at night.

But closing that door could save your life, buying you time to call the fire department for help, Parisi said.

You have three minutes until that room comes to flashover, and the smoke is so much more toxic than it used to be that one breath of that smoke could be enough to render you unconscious, he said.

The majority of people who die in house fires die from smoke inhalation, not burns, the fire marshal said. But if you have your door closed, youre preventing all that heat and smoke from entering your room, he said. Closing your door can buy time for help to arrive if you become trapped.

The best smoke alarms are interconnected, Parisi said, so that if one goes off, the rest will too. If a smoke alarm does go off, check the doorknob first, he advised. If its warm, dont open the door, he said, but if its cool, you can open the door and make your escape.

Parisi also encourages people to install residential sprinkler systems in their homes, especially in new construction. What that does is it suppresses the fire so it does not extend beyond the area of origin, he said.

These systems save lives, the fire marshal said. There has never been a multi-fatal fire in a residential sprinklered building in the United States, he said.

Sprinkler heads will only go off if the heat in the room reaches a certain temperature. Theyre not triggered by smoke, Parisi said. Consider it just like you consider putting a lawn sprinkler system in, he said. It could save your life and it could save your familys lives.

Colebrook Fire Chief Brooks has something else he wants people to remember. When in doubt, get out, he said. Everybody wants to save their house, but you can rebuild your house.

Its tough on firefighters to lose someone in a fire, Brooks said.

You feel bad for the family and you always wonder if there was more that you could do, he said. But sometimes just the circumstances the smoke, the fire, the heat you still do your best to knock it down so you can get in there, but time is always a factor.

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2020 was a deadly year for house fires in NH - The Union Leader

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