Raising the Alarm: Hudson Valley House and Building Fires on Rise

Explaining an uptick in structural blazes, and how to prevent them

Residential and commercial building fires have seemed curiously prevalent in the local news as of late, with blazes in Ulster County at sites like Hudson Valley Sausage Company and at homes in both Hyde Park and Poughkeepsie, among others. In 2013, Dutchess County experienced 153 fire-related incidents, according to the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. In just two years, those numbers have leapt to 211 incidents in 2015. And this year might be on track for a continued escalation.

“Definitely, in the last couple of weeks they’ve increased,” Arlington Fire Chief Tory Gallante confirmed regarding his department’s jurisdiction in a recent interview. In early July, the Arlington FD responded to the aforementioned residential fire in Poughkeepsie that left eight people temporarily displaced. Fortunately, there were no related injuries, though firefighters did rescue one large, happy white dog. “His name was Ghost, I believe,” Gallante recalled.

Summer can also be a particularly vulnerable period for fires to break out, given the increased utilities necessary to keep cool. That’s especially significant given that, according to the National Fire Protection Association, one of the leading causes of home fires between 2009-’13 stemmed from electrical distribution and lighting equipment.

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“This is the worst time [of year],” confirms Jeffrey Seidel, Executive Director of the National Electrical Contractors Association’s (NECA) Hudson Valley Chapter. “People buy an air conditioner, and it’s supposed to go in a special outlet, but a lot of people just plug it into a standard outlet in the house. It’ll work, but it can overload the wiring. That’s one cause of the problem.”

Gallante seconds that notion, citing one July fire in the region that was partially precipitated by an A/C malfunction. “A bed was up against a power cord for an air conditioner, which caused it to eventually short out,” he remembers, before emphasizing that, “Prevention is the key to most things.”

Seidel also affirms that extension cords can often be “the weak link” in assessing how a fire got sparked. But in some cases, acts of God intervene. Seidel reminds tenants and owners that summer usually means more thunderstorms for the Northeast than usual, increasing the likelihood that lighting might “hit the wiring someplace and give you a surge,” he explains. “That can start a fire too.”

But both Gallante and Seidel attest that year-round vigilance is necessary to avoid a potentially tragic accident, and other factors—like time—merit consideration. “If you have an older building that’s antiquated, the service might be substandard and more susceptible to some kind of deficiency,” Seidel advises. Conversely, more modern construction—especially commercially—tends to account for a range of safety codes. That way, Seidel says, “If you did have a fire, it’s contained and it doesn’t spread in the way it does in some of the older buildings, where it moves rapidly through the whole structure and engulfs it all. In new [buildings], the hope is if a fire does happen, it’s contained to a smaller area, [causing] less property damage, loss of light, anything of that nature.”

For Gallante, it comes down to the previous assertion about awareness and pre-planning, like ensuring smoke- and carbon-monoxide detectors are all working and that there’s identifiable ways to exit the home during an emergency. And as the calendar moves toward September and air conditioning becomes less of a potential fire starter, to begin looking ahead to other seasonal challenges. 

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“In the winter, make sure your home heating is serviced by someone who’s qualified,” Gallante suggests, with one final bit of caution for those who plan on stringing up Christmas lights come December: “Don’t overload electrical outlets and circuits.”


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