Rose Township — A 24-year-old Rose Township man escaped a fast-burning trailer fire Tuesday but died after rushing back inside in a frantic search for his 25-year-old wife and two young sons, all of whom perished.
The husband and father of the two boys, ages 2 and 5, had fled the flames with his 49-year-old father-in-law and a 35-year-old man when he turned around and ran back toward the trailer, said North Oakland County Fire Authority Chief Jeremy Lintz.
“We later learned the 24-year-old man had escaped the fire with the two other men but went back inside for his wife and kids and never came back out,” said Lintz.
A fifth victim was hospitalized in critical condition with serious burns from the early morning fire in the 4200 block of Wakewood Court.
Lintz said officials are withholding names pending autopsies and notification of next of kin, several of whom live out of state.
The tragedy underscores the need for precaution when seeking heating sources during the cold winter months, fire officials and experts say.
“There are plenty of stories time and time again, unfortunately, where we hear of heating-related fires,” said Michael O’Brian, president at the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs, who leads the Brighton Area Fire Authority. “People just truly do not understand the speed at which fire travels nowadays. Our homes are filled with contents that can aid the spread.”
Firefighters received the fire call at 5:38 a.m. and arrived seven minutes later to find the trailer home “fully engulfed,” the chief said.
“The fire was burning too hot, and it was impossible to get inside,” said Lintz, who described the trailer as a “600-square-foot tinderbox.”
“It took about 20 minutes to get under control and go inside,” he said.
The fire remains under investigation by the Michigan State Police, but authorities believe it was accidental, Lintz said.
“One of the leads we have is that comments were made by the survivors that it may have ignited when someone placed an accelerant on a wood-burning stove used to heat the dwelling,” he said.
Firefighters arrived to find two men standing outside, one a 49-year-old with severe burns across the front of his body and the other, 35 years old and believed to be his nephew, suffering cuts and burns.
Neighbor David Peters said he awoke around 5:30 a.m. to see a “red glow” through his windows coming from the home.
“I went outside and there was (the 49-year-old man) running around like a crazy man, pounding on the walls, screaming at people to get out,” said Peters. “We both tried to find a way inside, but flames and black smoke were pouring out of every door and window … it was too much.”
Peters said he has known the family for several years and often talked to the boys, who played in his lawn sprinkler.
Another neighbor choked back tears, recalling the boys at play.
“They are real nice people,” said Terry McCaffrey, another neighbor who also woke up to flames lighting up Wakewood Court. “This is just horrible. I can’t think of anything worse.”
The deaths coincided with what the National Fire Protection Association calls the leading months for home heating fires.
A recent National Fire Protection Association latest U.S. Home Fires Involving Heating Equipment report from the group released this month found that heating equipment is the second-leading contributor to U.S. residential fires and the third-leading source behind home fire fatalities. More than half of all home heating fire deaths resulted from fires that began when heating equipment was too close to things that can burn, such as upholstered furniture, clothing, mattresses or bedding.
And from 2011-15, Michigan ranked in the top 10 among U.S. states for fire deaths, according to association research.
The fatalities prompted state officials to launch a Community Risk Reduction plan that aims to tackle the deaths through collaborations, education programs, outreach and other means.
Fire Marshal Kevin Sehlmeyer said , who announced the initiative in November, added that residents should be aware of the safest methods to heat their homes. “They shouldn’t be bringing a flammable or combustible liquid inside,” he said Tuesday.
Alternative heat sources such as wood-burning stoves or space heaters require proper ventilation to prevent build-up and need at least three feet between them and combustible material, Detroit Fire Capt. Chris Dixon said.
Caution is key when accelerants are involved, he added. “If you use gasoline, that’s very volatile. … One linear inch of gasoline vapor is equivalent to one dynamite stick, which could explode.”
Besides handling heating systems with care, homeowners should have working smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors, said Lorraine Carli, a spokeswoman for the National Fire Protection Association.
“When a fire starts, it goes very quickly and you want to make sure you give yourself every opportunity to get out as fast as you can by having that early warning.”
Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.