NAGS HEAD, N.C.
A fire at the Christmas Mouse shop in Nags Head last month started among cardboard boxes within an outside storage area.
Investigators are not certain what ignited the boxes, but determined it was accidental, said Nags Head spokeswoman Roberta Thuman.
The Christmas Mouse fire was one of seven major structure fires this year in Dare County. The county averages about 12 to 14 a year, said fire marshal Steve Kovacs.
Strong winds, salty air and water on electrical devices, rentals vacant for long periods and buildings standing high on piles make the Outer Banks vulnerable to accidental fires.
The April 12 Christmas Mouse fire drew crowds as flames shot up from the rear of the building before firefighters arrived. The crew suppressed the flames despite brisk winds threatening to spread the blaze into a nearby stand of trees. The store’s interior appears charred where the stock of Christmas decorations and artificial trees were.
From 2013 through 2018, there were 199 structure fires in Dare County, according to the North Carolina Office of the State Fire Marshal. Many of those were inconsequential, such as trash fires or electrical malfunctions that generated emergency calls but did not set the building on fire, Kovacs said.
Modern beach homes are full of furniture and appliances made from plastic, vinyl and pressed wood. Buildings burn more quickly than they once did, making response times more crucial, Kovacs said.
“That puts us behind right away,” he said.
The fire can “flash over” as it spreads in an instant from floor to ceiling with temperatures around 1,000 degrees. Petroleum-based materials emit dark, toxic smoke making it more dangerous for anybody inside and for firefighters.
At least 46 people statewide have died in structure fires so far this year, including in Hyde, Hertford and Tyrrell counties, according to the North Carolina Office of the State Fire Marshall. There were 135 last year. The last fatal fire in Dare County was six years ago in Manteo, Kovacs said.
Installing smoke alarms is the simplest means of surviving a house fire, Kovacs said.
Alarms should be installed in every bedroom and at least one placed on every floor including outside sleeping areas, he said. They should be interconnected so they all go off. That could require an expensive electrical job in older homes, but models come with a wireless connection now that could solve that, Kovacs said.
It is not always easy to figure out what causes fires, he said. There is pressure to get it right. Insurance companies often send their own inspectors. Kovacs must determine two main factors — what was the heat source and what material first caught fire.
A house in Southern Shores burned down in March while the owners were gone. Inspectors could never determine what happened, Kovacs said.
“There was very little left of that structure,” he said.
Cooking appliances were the leading cause of structure fires in the nation from 2012 through 2016, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Outdoor grills and food left cooking unattended on the stove are among the most frequent culprits on the Outer Banks.
Grillers should make sure charcoals are completely extinguished. Hot coals can heat up and ignite vinyl siding. Dry boards on an old deck can catch fire quickly from fallen coals.
Other causes include space heaters left on near flammable materials, candles, smoking and overloaded extension cords and power strips.
Kovacs reached in the back of his truck and pulled out a power strip with a dark burned spot at a receptacle. A beer cooler had been connected to it.
An inspector caught it before it ignited.
“They are not designed to be used in place of wiring, but people do that,” he said. “It’s going to cook it.”