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Missing batteries blamed for silent smoke detectors during Babs fire

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Residents of the Babs apartment building who were twice rousted from their homes by fire Friday said smoke detectors failed to alert them to the danger.

Despite the smoke billowing from a second-story window and flames that gutted a bedroom in Apartment 8, the smoke detectors remained silent.

After residents of the Babs were evacuated from their building for the second time Friday, many were upset and wanted to know why the smoke detectors did not go off.

They could smell smoke throughout the building, and could see it in the hall. So why was there no high-pitched beeping?

"The two detectors inside the apartment did not have batteries," Assistant Fire Marshal Nate Nunnally said Sunday.

But that only explains the first fire, in the afternoon.

The second fire, some five hours later, was caused by some embers smoldering within a pile of clothes that had been overlooked by the fire crews and inspectors.

Nunnally explained that smoke detectors have a detection range of 30 feet in diameter and when a human nose can smell smoke it is not necessarily enough to set off a detector.

If it was, every time a person burned some toast the detectors would be set off.

Further, because both fires occurred behind closed doors the smoke was sufficiently contained to not trigger other, functioning detectors in the building; even ones installed in the hall outside the apartment after the first fire did not detect the second.

Even as black smoke from the first blaze filled the bedroom where a candle had been left burning, firefighters in the hallway could not see the smoke and had to feel the doors to determine which apartment contained the fire, Nunnally said.

Besides checking smoke detectors regularly and replacing them every 10 years, Nunnally said residents need to be cautious of burning candles.

Like the fire in the Babs apartment, three-quarters of home fires in Missoula are caused by candles, he said.

"I would certainly encourage people to use devices to put out their candles," Nunnally said. "If you just blow it out, the wick will sit there and it will glow. Believe me. We've played around with candles."

After a candle is blown out, Nunnally said, the glowing ember at the end of the wick is burning at 400 to 500 degrees, which is hot enough to ignite any gases emitting from the melted wax of the candle.

If left unattended, like the candle in Apartment 8, a fire can easily start.

Reporter Colin McDonald can be reached at 523-5259 or at cmcdonald@missoulian.com

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