Death of Boise mom, 2 kids in rental house fire puts spotlight on smoke detectors

Idaho law requires that rental properties have at least one working smoke detector when tenants move in — and after that, it’s incumbent upon the residents to be sure it’s in good working order.

But fire experts, including the Idaho state fire marshal, recommend having smoke detectors in all bedrooms, hallways outside bedrooms, occupied floors and basements to warn residents of deadly smoke and fire as soon as possible.

“What we’ve seen in homes, especially the modern furnished home, is fires grow rapidly,” Idaho State Fire Marshal Knute Sandahl told the Idaho Statesman on Tuesday. “It’s eight times faster than they did in the ’60s and ’70s because we’re using more synthetics inside homes.”

He’s talking about the furnishings inside houses, not the houses themselves.

There’s evidence that many Idahoans aren’t heeding safety experts’ advice to have at least one working smoke detector. The state fire marshal’s office has investigated 48 residential fires so far this year — resulting in eight deaths — and in only one of those cases was there a working smoke alarm.

“It’s very upsetting to me,” Sandahl said. “We’ve been preaching the use and installation of fire alarms. We’re at a loss.”

Knute Sandahl.jpeg
Knute Sandahl has been Idaho State Fire Marshal since 2014. Katy Moeller

Large, fast-moving fires are terrifying, but smaller fires also can be deadly because smoke can kill you while you sleep. That’s why early detection is critical.

“Very few people die of thermal injuries in home fires,” said Sandahl, who has worked in the state fire marshal’s office since 2006 but previously worked as a death investigator in Illinois and Idaho. “It’s the smoke that gets them. Everything else is secondary.”

A Boise family of three died in a house fire early Monday morning. The Ada County coroner identified the victims as Jana Cullen, 43, and her two children, Ryker Sanchez, 12, and Rilee Sanchez, 9.

Neighbors reported the fire in the two-story house in the 1500 block of South Leadville Avenue just after 5 a.m. The fire was small enough that firefighters were able to enter and pull all three victims out. Cullen died at the scene, and the children died at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center.

Fire investigators determined the cause of the fire was a malfunction in the heating element of an electric wax burner. The burner “failed” and caught shelving on fire.

The Statesman reached out Tuesday to the owner of the gray, two-story, 1,517-square-foot house on Leadville but did not hear back. Cullen had rented the house since 2010, Boise Fire Department spokeswoman Char Jackson told the Statesman on Tuesday.

Investigators found five smoke detectors in the house; four were in a box, and one was in the first-floor kitchen ceiling but didn’t have a battery. Jackson said she could not answer questions about those detectors because the investigation isn’t complete.

State law requires that landlords “install smoke detectors in each dwelling unit.”

“Upon commencement of a rental agreement, the landlord shall verify that smoke detectors have been installed and are in good working order in the dwelling unit. The tenant shall maintain the smoke detectors in good working order during the tenant’s rental period,” Idaho statute says.

If a landlord doesn’t install a working smoke detector, the law says, tenants “may send written notice by certified mail, return receipt requested, to the landlord or the landlord’s assignee that if working smoke detectors are not installed within 72 hours of receipt of the letter, the tenant may install smoke detectors and deduct the cost from the tenant’s next month’s rent.”

Sandahl says Idaho building code requires that smoke alarms be hard-wired into bedrooms, hallways outside bedrooms and living rooms (these devices use batteries as a backup power source). There was no such requirement for homes built before the mid-1980s.

“It’s just a darn good idea,” said the fire marshal, who has six smoke detectors in his single-story, three-bedroom home.

The state fire marshal’s office doesn’t investigate all fires. It investigates at the request of local fire departments, often in cases of fatalities or suspected crime. It is not involved in the investigation of the fatal Leadville Avenue fire.


Some tips for those who have or plan to get smoke detectors:

  • Check the detector once a month by pushing the button to verify it’s working.
  • Replace the batteries when you set your clocks back in the fall. Ten-year batteries are now available, too.
  • If you have smoke detectors, check them to be sure they’re no more than 10 years old. Replace them if they have no manufacture date, or they are older than 10 years.
  • Annoyed by frequent alarms in the kitchen? Install a detector just outside the kitchen. Also, photoelectric alarms are less prone to going off due to burned food.

Consumer Reports’ buyers guide says there are three types of smoke detectors on the market: ionization smoke detectors (best at detecting small particles in fast-moving fires), photoelectric smoke detectors (best at detecting large particles in smoldering fires) and dual-sensor smoke detectors (best at detecting both flaming and smoldering fires). A basic dual-sensor alarm is about $23 from Amazon and Target.

National Fire Prevention Week is Oct. 6-12 this year. Smoke detectors often are on sale that week.

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