Meth labs cited as leading cause of Tulsa's fire deaths

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    Meth labs cited as leading cause of Okla. city's fire deaths

    By Nicole Marshall
    The Tulsa World

    TULSA, Okla. — Fire fatalities increased in Tulsa last year, largely because of blazes caused by meth labs, Fire Department officials said.

    Year-end records show that 13 people died in fires in 2009, compared with 10 in 2008, nine in 2007 and three in 2006.

    Carelessly discarded smoking materials are typically the leading cause of fire fatalities, but last year the number of meth-fire deaths surpassed smoking-related deaths, said Richard Hall, Tulsa Fire Department planner.

    At least three of the fire deaths were directly caused by meth production, while two deaths were caused by carelessly discarded smoking materials, he said.

    "The extraordinary increase in meth fires is what I would attribute the increase in fire deaths in the city of Tulsa. We have had many more meth fires than we have ever had before," said Fire Capt. Jeff VanDolah, an assistant fire marshal.

    Police records indicate that officers dismantled 315 meth labs in the city last year, more than the previous five years combined.

    Both police and firefighters blame the increase on a trend of meth production that is faster, more volatile and uses fewer ingredients.

    "The materials are very volatile; at any stage of the process, it could start a fire," VanDolah said. "We also have a lot of meth fires that cause injuries that do not result in deaths."

    "Those injuries usually involve the front part of the body, hands, arms and sometimes under the chin," VanDolah said.

    Statistics show that the number of structure fires as well as the monetary loss from structure fires declined last year compared to 2008.

    There were 652 structure fires in 2009, which was down from 745 in 2008. Fire caused about $11.9 million in damage to structures in 2009, compared to about $16 million in 2008.

    "It is a necessary statistic to keep and look at, but there are so many factors that come into play, such as when do you get the fire call and whether the structure is already involved by the time we get there," Hall said.

    And with possible layoffs in the Fire Department looming, there are concerns that response times to fires may increase and investigations may suffer due to depleted manpower.

    On Friday, 147 firefighters received layoff notices; however, their union plans to take the city's latest salary-cut offer to its members for a vote this week before the layoffs go into effect.

    "That is a concern, speaking from the Investigations Division, if we have a reduction in manpower. Just like with the Police Department, if there is a reduction in manpower, you don't know how that is going to affect the thoroughness of investigations or response times," VanDolah said.