Haverhill Fire Chief O’Brien Repeats Alarm After Fifth of Six Recent Major Fires Caused by Smoking

Fear of a rickety staircase at 86 White St., Haverhill, complicated the assault on the fire. (Mike Jarvis photograph for WHAV News.)

Haverhill firefighters battled, what the fire chief called, a “stubborn” blaze at a multifamily home Wednesday afternoon on White Street that was the latest to be caused by cigarette smoking.

The fire was reported at 4:18 p.m., at what is listed in city records as a two-family home built around 1850. Fire Chief Robert M. O’Brien said he is troubled by a trend that saw five of the last six major fires in the city caused by careless disposal of smoking materials.

“It was a very stubborn fire. We were chasing it,” O’Brien told WHAV, noting the fire was able to spread internally through an old chimney that had been capped inside and out of view. Complicating attempts to bring the fire under control was an outdoor staircase that was deemed unsafe for multiple firefighters to use at the same time. “It took some time to get it, to cut into it,” O’Brien added.

The chief said all four residents escaped safely, including a man unaware of the blaze who had to be escorted out of his shower by firefighters. Tackling the fire, getting it under control and putting out hot spots took about three hours.

Ultimately, apparatus from every city fire station, including the Rocks Village call station, played a role in containing the fire. Mutual aid to cover city stations was provided by Groveland, Georgetown, North Andover, Methuen, Lawrence and Salem, N.H., fire departments.

Last week, a Bellevue Avenue house fire blamed on smoking materials in outdoor trash displaced 11 residents. Three other fires in the last week were also blamed on careless disposal of smoking materials. They were an April 12 brush fire near Plug Pond, April 13 outdoor fire that damaged a home on Glen Meadow Road and April 14 vehicle fire on Sunrise Street.

In January, 80-year-old Richard Wallace died in a Ninth Avenue fire also blamed on smoking.

O’Brien said, “Any fire is dangerous, but smoking fires pose a special hazard because they can smolder undetected and grow to dangerous size on a porch or next to a home before anyone inside is aware of them.” He added, “In a densely built community, these fires can easily spread to nearby homes. If you must smoke, or if you have guests who do, always use a sturdy ashtray or heavy can with water. Never crush out cigarettes on a porch railing or stairway, or toss them into mulch, grass, trash, or planters. Even a small ember can start a big fire.”

State Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey added “smoking fires are a dangerous problem all year round, but that fires on porches, decks, and balconies tend to increase in the springtime as the weather warms up.”

The fire marshal noted, “In an average year, these fires cause dozens of injuries to firefighters and civilians, and upwards of $15 million in damages. Sadly, the greatest toll is in human life. In the past three years, 30 Massachusetts residents have died in smoking-related fires. For your safety and the safety of people you care for, please don’t smoke. If you absolutely must smoke, please do it responsibly and put it out, all the way, every time.”

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