Nashville TN Jan 8 2017 The past year has been especially deadly for Tennesseans caught in fires across the state, which already holds the nation's sixth-highest fire mortality rate.
In September, seven children and three adults were dragged out of a burning house in Memphis. Their bodies were laid beneath a tarp on the lawn, and a neighbor witnessed firefighters crying nearby.
In late November, the deadly Gatlinburg wildfire claimed 14 lives as the blaze whipped through the beloved tourist town in Sevier County.
And just a few days later in early December, two small children and their father were killed in blaze in a Nashville mobile home. Then four small children were killed in a Springfield house fire in Robertson County. Two others were critically injured.
Fires in 2016 killed 129 people, according to the State Fire Marshal’s Office, the highest toll in seven years.
That number includes the Gatlinburg fatalities, which have not yet been added to state record.
“The causes of the fires and fatalities in Gatlinburg are still being investigated,” state fire marshal spokesman Kevin Walters said. “The circumstances and location of the victims and whether the deaths are specifically linked to arson will have to be determined.”
The final count, which could change, will be locked in next fall after all investigations are final.
While six of the deaths were considered intentional, the vast majority were unintentional fire deaths.
Walters said the high number is the result of an unusual amount of multiple deaths in single fires, a trend that played out across the country.
"Some of this is due to the added fuel loads of modern furnishings, multigenerational living arrangements (and) more victims with mobility issues — just to name a few," he said.
The South Memphis fire that killed 10, for example, was the worst single family dwelling fire in years in Tennessee, if not recorded history, Walters said.
“The Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office extends our sympathies to the families of all the victims of fatal fires,” State Fire Marshal and Commerce and Insurance Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak said in a statement.
The fire marshal’s office partnered with the local Red Cross chapter recently to install free smoke alarms in a few neighborhoods after residents submitted requests through the online alarm form. The form allows Tennesseans to apply for free smoke alarms and installations.
Because working smoke alarms were not installed in 70 percent of all fatal structure fires, the fire marshal's office has been working to install alarms in vulnerable communities across the state as part of its “Get Alarmed” program.
"We urge Tennesseans to help us fight fire by ensuring they have working smoke alarms, they take precautions when heating their homes this winter and they create an escape plan for their home in the event of a fire," Walters said.
The office distributed 35,946 smoke alarms across the state last year. The "Get Alarmed" program is credited with saving 168 Tennesseans since its inception five years ago.
While fire death rates have dropped over the past four decades to an all-time low in 2015, Tennessee has the sixth-highest unintentional fire death rate in the nation, according to the most recent data from the National Fire Protection Association.
Other Southern states make up eight of the 10 top spots for fire fatality rates in the nation. The National Fire Protection Association cites poverty, race, smoking and education as common correlating factors.
Tennessee was among the highest for fires caused by smoking. Other causes include electrical malfunction, heating devices during winter and cooking.
Tennessee fire facts
Over winter, heating fires are the leading cause of fatal blazes in the state, according to the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
The deadliest Tennessee fire in over 200 years was a coal mine fire in 1902 that killed 182 people, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office credits smoke detector installations with saving 168 people since the “Get Alarmed” program began in 2012.
Medical oxygen is another contributing factor to fire deaths. Medical oxygen increases the rate at which fire burns and how hot it burns.