Rūta Smith Lydia Ackerman, vice president of property management for Darby Development, the owners of Fairwind-Oakfield apartments, inspects damage from a Jan. 7 fire caused by an electric short in a utility meter at the Fairwind apartments | Photo by Rūta Smith

Residential fires in the tri-county have displaced on average 820 people in each of the last three years, including two fires since July 2021 at a North Charleston apartment community that temporarily left slightly more than two dozen people without a place to live.

The most recent fire at Fairwind-Oakfield in North Charleston erupted shortly before 9 p.m. Jan. 7. Within minutes of a resident hearing what sounded like fireworks, another tenant called 911 when smoke gushed out from under a kitchen sink. Soon firefighters were suppressing an electrical fire inside the walls of the apartment building where other residents experienced another blaze caused by fireworks on July 4, 2021.

Ackerman

“Fire is one of my biggest fears,” said Lydia Ackerman, vice president of property management for Darby Development, Fairwind-Oakfield’s owner. “[On Jan. 7] the first thing I thought of was my residents and everyone getting out safely, including the animals. 

“I can get them pajamas and a hotel room, but I can’t replace someone being injured,” she said. “We are grateful to the firemen. They were wonderful.”

The Jan. 7 fire displaced 15 people from four apartments in the Fairfield complex, she said. The fire in July 2021 displaced 14 from four apartments in the Oakfield community, she added. According to the South Carolina region of the American Red Cross, fires in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties displaced 898 people in 2022, 735 in 2021 and 852 in 2020. 

So far this year, the Red Cross has already assisted nearly 100 individuals who’ve been displaced by 22 fires in the tri-county, said Mandy McMahon, the aid agency’s regional communication’s director in Greenville. The most recent fires Sunday on Rio Street in Charleston and on Shagbark Trail in North Charleston, displaced six and seven people, respectively. “We respond to an average of six home fires a day across the state,” she added.

The American Red Cross provides families with money to replace lost clothing, food, eyeglasses and medications and assistance in finding a new home, she said. The services also include mental health and spiritual counseling and referrals for other assistance.

Residential fires also are part of the Red Cross mission. The agency teaches adults and children how to reduce fires overall through its Sound the Alarm program by encouraging South Carolinians to install smoke alarms in their homes, she said. 

Causes of residential fires

Michael Julazadeh, Charleston’s chief fire marshal, said the leading causes of fires include untended cooking, electrical shorts, malfunctioning heating units, and discarded cigarettes or other smoking material. 

“We are also finding people storing combustible items in cardboard boxes and plastic wrap on top of the stove and [then] inadvertently turning the stove on,” he said.

Moncks Corner Fire Chief Robert Gass said last year his department responded to about 20 residential fires and most of them were due to careless cooking. Five of those fires displaced residents briefly, he added. The town has not experienced a major apartment blaze since 2018 when fire heavily damaged an older structure.

Newer apartment buildings have design features that can minimize smoke and water damage, said Stephanie Julazadeh, deputy chief of professional standards and public information officer for the North Charleston Fire Department. A moderate-sized fire in an apartment complex, she said, will most likely always affect more than just the people who live in the unit that was the source of the fire, she explained. 

New apartment construction requires sprinkler systems, she said. When firefighters arrive “we can identify the fire has been extinguished and quickly shut the sprinkler system down” to minimize water damage, she said. Some heating and cooling systems also have smoke sensors “in the duct work to [remove] the smoke to keep the exit paths clear,” she added.

When asked how receptive Moncks Corner residents have been to heeding the fire prevention message, Gass paused and said: “We do a CPR course every Saturday and part of that class we spend on basic fire safety and around-the-home safety to get it in people’s minds. Most of this everybody has heard [before] but you just have to keep putting it in people’s minds to get them to think about it.”


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