(Forsyth County, GA) House fires are dangerous, terrifying, and extremely common, and one Forsyth County family is all too familiar with how quickly they can start.
According to a five year report from 2015 to 2019 conducted by The National Fire Protection Association, fire departments responded to an average of almost 350,000 home structure fires per year. These fires led to an average of 2,620 civilian deaths, 11,070 civilian fire injuries, and $7.3 billion in direct property damage.
On Monday, June 6th, 16-year-old Lachlan Povenz was staying with his grandmother and younger sister in their north Forsyth home while his parents were out of town. They were startled out of bed at about 3:00 a.m., when smoke alarms started going blaring in the house.
As Lachlan and his sister went to see what was setting off the alarms, it was quickly apparent that something serious was happening.
“When I reached the hallways upstairs you could see it was filled with smoke,” Lachlan said. After alerting his grandmother of the fire and pinpointing it to the living room, Lachlan says he grabbed a fire extinguisher from the kitchen and quickly put out the flames.
The fire was caused by an electric skateboard charging overnight on top of a stuffed animal. “The charger was brand new, and we had got it that day,” Lachlan said. He says the skateboard had been dead for a while after losing its original charger before his family decided to replace it with a new one.
Stopping a fire before it starts
“A number of things happened there that could have prevented the incident,” said Forsyth County Fire Division Chief Jason Shivers. As battery-powered appliances continue to become more commonplace in the home, Shivers says the frequency of battery-related fires continues to grow as well.
He emphasizes the importance of allowing a charging system adequate room to breathe to keep it from overheating. It is especially dangerous when the charger is surrounded by flammable material like a stuffed animal.
But Shivers says the risk is not just where you put your charger but also what kind of charger you are using.
A battery is designed to take in an amount of ohms and voltage specific to the charger with which it is packaged. Shivers cautions against buying non-identical replacements for chargers, especially cheaper alternatives that may not be manufactured with the same safety standards as reputable sources.
“If you start mismatching chargers or charging systems to a device, that's inviting disaster that can be very, very problematic,” Shivers said.
Dangers of improper disposal
Cheap alternative or not, he says how you dispose of your batteries is extremely important as well. “Proper disposal is a significant part of this conversation, and that's where we've found a number of our fires,” Shivers said.
When batteries are thrown in the garbage, the pressure created from additional garbage does not allow them to cool off, and when the batteries rupture, they are susceptible to starting a fire. This type of fire is most common in garbage trucks but entirely possible with household trash as well.
Shivers says you can often dispose of batteries or battery-powered products by having a store send you a disposal box to return to them or dropping the batteries off at the store yourself. An alternative method is recycling them at a local recycling plant for a small fee.
There are several ways in which batteries can start a fire, and Shivers cites 15 battery-related fires reported in Forsyth County in the last 18 months alone.
“That doesn’t even include all of the ones we might not have been notified about,” Shivers said.
Keeping the bad from getting worse
While there were preventable reasons for the fire starting in the first place, other precautions were properly taken that ultimately prevented the incident from turning into a disaster. Smoke alarms awoke and alerted the family before the fire spread out of the living room, and a readily available fire extinguisher allowed Lachlan to put out the fire before firefighters arrived.
Shivers says to make sure your smoke alarms have working batteries in them, are up to date, and if wired to your home, have backup battery power in case of a power outage. He recommends using smoke alarms that have a lifetime battery that will last the ten year limit before the smoke alarm needs to be replaced.
Although Lachlan and his family successfully put out the fire, they still called firefighters to take a look at the house, something Shivers says is incredibly important.
“If you have the fire out, we still need to come out and take a look,” Shivers said. “We need to check your walls, check your electrical system, check the area around where the fire was, get up in your attic space, get a look under your home, [get] all those areas where fire can be hiding that you might not think it had a chance to creep into.”
And despite the briefness and size of the fire compared to what it could have been, the relatively minor incident is still leaving its effects on Lachlan and his family.
“The smoke damage was more impactful than the fire itself,” Lachlan said. “[It] put a layer of soot on practically everything in our house and went through the vents too.”
As the family restores its house and recovers emotionally, Shivers hopes this incident can serve as a cautionary tale to others on the importance of being prepared for a fire before it happens and knowing what you can do to avoid them in the first place.
“Every fire chief in America’s dream goal is to put themselves out of business,” Shivers said. “That's the job of the fire department: To educate the public to the point where we're so safe that we will never have a fire again.”
If you have a news tip in Forsyth County, contact Ben Lacina at email@example.com