When a fire erupted at Avondale Forest Apartments in Decatur just two days after New Year’s Day, the parents of a 4-year-old girl had to throw her into the waiting arms of Fire Capt. Scott Stroup on the ground.
While that heroic catch prevented any deaths from that Jan. 3 fire, it displaced 100 residents.
Year to date through July 9, more than 215 fires – including a second one at Avondale Forest Apartments on July 8 – have killed four people and two puppies in DeKalb County; injured 18 people and one dog, displaced more than 250 people, destroyed 63 apartment units, eight homes, and three businesses, and caused $8,763,728 worth of property damage.
Those fires have also cost the American Red Cross more than $200,000 in direct emergency assistance to 1,041 people from 339 families, who were victims of DeKalb County fires.
Among the identified dead are:
n 74-year-old Onoloda Williams was found dead on Jan. 30 in her bedroom on the 1300 block of Hidden Hills Parkway after the fires were put out.
n 71-year-old Quinette Ludlam was pronounced dead on May 2 at her home on the 1100 block of Mayfield Drive in Decatur, after firefighters were unable to resuscitate her.
n 92-year-old Harold Smith died June 3 at his 751 Medlock Road home because smoke prevented his family from rescuing him.
n 42-year-old Adelfo Jimenez died July 5 in his second-floor bedroom when his home in the 7300 block of Covington Highway in Decatur was set ablaze.
So far, only eight of the fires have been identified as intentional. The others were ruled unintentional, or due to equipment failure or acts of nature, or are still under investigation.
David Abrohams, disaster program manager of the American Red Cross, said that on average the relief agency responds to three or four disaster events a day in metro Atlanta and that DeKalb County accounts for a fair amount of them.
Since July 1, Abrohams said more than 500 families have been displaced throughout metro Atlanta’s 10-county area.
“DeKalb is our busiest and most active county,” he said.
The Red Cross is usually called to the scene when a local fire department notifies its disaster relief team of a displaced family. It provides shelter and a credit card for food, clothing and other necessities.
Families struggling to recover
Trenton Wyatt, who lost his apartment on July 9 in a fire at Le Parc Fontaine Condominiums in Lithonia, said his experience has been crazy.
“It was hard to explain,” he said. “It was an adrenaline rush, crazy, scary.”
It’s only been four weeks since the fire that destroyed his home and life, and so far Wyatt said he's had little to no updates about fixing his apartment. He said he received no assistance from the Red Cross.
“I can’t even get back into my apartment,” he said. “It’s upsetting and devastating.”
Between 2007 and 2010, Wyatt was a part of the DeKalb Fire Department’s Explorer program which teaches kids 14-18 years old about basic firefighting.
“It trained us to be wary of fires and from there it was like if I see a fire, I’ll know what to do,” he said.
Wyatt said that training helped him to help others escape the fire. Still, he wasn’t prepared for a fire leaving him homeless.
The number of fires in DeKalb County through July 14 is just three less than the same time last year, when 218 fires razed homes and apartments across the county.
In their wake, they left $9,740,934 worth of property damage.
To help reduce the number of fires in the county, DeKalb Fire and Rescue has implemented Operation Safe DeKalb, which focuses on public education, inspection, and investigation.
Fire Capt. Dion Bentley said they are working together to educate not only the public but also each other on trends and issues so that they can be better at preventing fires.
“If we know there are a lot of fires in a territory then we’ll focus on educating the kids in that territory,” he said.
Besides teaching children, Operation Safe DeKalb makes it a policy to visit apartments, businesses and homes that have burned down in the past to teach occupants about fire safety.
Bentley said officers inspect common spaces in apartments, and teach tenants about checking their smoke detectors and changing their batteries. They also outline steps to take in the event of a grease fire.
Occupants are also taught not to overload electrical outlets, and how to survey their homes for potential fire hazards such as not having heaters close to curtains.
Sherry Nicholson, Red Cross Georgia's communications director, adds that families should develop a fire escape plan that includes an outside meeting place.
"Practice it with family members twice a year until everyone can escape in two minutes or less," she said.
She adds that families should install and have working smoke alarms that are less than 10 years old on every level of their home and test them monthly.
The Red Cross has lots of great fire safety tips at www.redcross.org/get-help/how-to-prepare-for-emergencies/types-of-emergencies/fire.
Nicholson said DeKalb residents can also volunteer as Red Cross disaster responders and donate money to support its daily disaster responses in metro Atlanta and Georgia at www.redcross.org.
"Georgia's Red Cross responds to more fires and helps more families following them than any Red Cross region in the country," Nicholson said.
Bentley, of DeKalb Fire & Rescue, said that the department’s goal is never to have a fire in the county and to never lose a person or any pet to a fire.
“We’re always looking to see what we can do better,” he said. “As firefighters, our motivation has not changed. We always have to grow and become more focused.”
He said the death of four residents and two pets this year hit firefighters pretty hard.
“No firefighter wants to lose a human being or a pet,” Bentley said. “Some things are out of our control, some things are accidents, but it makes us sad.”