No answers: Fatal Augusta fire accidental, cause unknown

A morning fire on Sunday, September 30 that swept through a house in the Augusta County town of Dooms, killing an 11-year-old boy as he slept upstairs, was accidental and started in a downstairs bedroom, says the lead investigator in the case. But while at least one family member was awake at the time the blaze started, it's unclear exactly how the fire started or whether a smoke detector that was present functioned.

"I couldn't rule out a heater in that bedroom as the source of the fire," says Virginia State Police Special Agent B.N. Webster, who says he was also unable to locate a battery for the charred smoke detector to determine whether it should have sounded. The mother of the child who died told Webster that the family did not hear the detector sound although she allegedly told investigators she had checked its battery in recent months and believed it to be functioning. A call to 911 was placed at 8:31am.

According to Webster, as the family tried to extinguish the blaze downstairs, it spread throughout the first floor and to a second story living space where the youthful victim, Dustyn R. Fitzgerald, was still sleeping. Neither the family nor firefighters could access the space because of thick smoke and flames. Fitzgerald was pronounced dead at the scene by a doctor who was riding with EMTs that day, Webster says.

As extensively reported in this paper over the past four and a half years, and recently reported on the Today show and on NBC Nightly News, it's not just having a smoke detector with working batteries that's important– it's having the right type of smoke detector.

The type found in the vast majority of American homes is known as an ionization detector, which uses small amounts of radioactive material and will only sound when exposed to particles released by active flames. Ionization detectors are particularly susceptible to false alarms, often activating amid food cooking or even from shower steam, a situation which can lead residents to disable them.

The second type, photoelectric, detects the larger particles released by a smoldering fire– the type of fire responsible for most housefire fatalities. While multiple industry conducted tests and one conducted by the Hook in June 2008 found ionization detectors several seconds faster than photoelectrics in responding to open flame, photoelectric detectors often trigger more than a half-hour earlier than ionization detectors in smoldering fire conditions. The photoelectrics are credited with catching such fires in their infancy, before toxic gases can incapacitate residents and render them unable to escape once an open flame erupts and spreads.

Both Charlottesville and Albemarle fire departments provide free combination detectors, which utilize both elements. Supporters of combination technology, including Charlottesville Fire Chief Charles Werner, say this provides the most comprehensive coverage. Other fire experts, however, including the International Association of Fire Fighters, have formally supported photoelectric-only detectors, citing combination detectors' susceptibility to false alarms.

Webster says there was no indication that the Dooms fire smoldered before igniting.

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1 comment

Again with the photoelectric detectors? Can you please limit this apparently mandatory discussion of the different types of smoke detectors to one paragraph instead of five? It's been over four years already.