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Fires caused by vulnerable people and smoking

Case 1

How this fire happened

A passer-by noticed smoke coming from a kitchen window of a block of flats. 

When the fire service arrived they found a fire in the lounge that may have been burning for some time. 

The flat was very untidy, there were a lot of tissues, soaked in Olbas Oil, on the floor around the chair in the lounge which was where the fire had started.


The rest of the flat was in a state of disarray with a lot of paper, discarded cigarette ends and smoking materials laying around. 

The occupant of the flat, an elderly lady, a heavy smoker, in poor health and with mobility issues was found unconscious on the bed in the bedroom of the flat with burns and smoke inhalation. 

The smoke alarms in the flat were sounding when the fire service arrived and there was a help call-point in the bedroom, next to where she was found, but it had not been activated.


A neighbour heard the smoke alarm but thought that it was the beeping of a level crossing on the main road. 


Sadly the lady died 8 days after the fire from her injuries.

The effect it had

“My mother died in a fire in her flat last year after receiving 40% burns. She was in an induced coma for a week before passing away and seeing her in this way was very painful for the family. 

Unbeknown to us, some months prior, she had started smoking heavily again and had been hoarding. 

The signs in hindsight were there and now looking back I wish I'd contacted the care & support services to check her well-being.”

Safety message​

In a collaborative study by South West Fire Services identified a list of 7 risk factors common in fatal fires. These are: 

  1. Mental Health Issues

  2. Poor Housekeeping/Hoarding

  3. Alcohol

  4. Smoking

  5. Drugs (prescription and illegal)

  6. Limited Mobility

  7. Living Alone

Do you know someone with these risk factors? Contact us.


Without doubt the safest fire prevention action would be to stop smoking. If this is not possible, there are other ways of reducing the risks. 

  • Where possible, smoke in the company of others.

  • Ensure there is an ashtray within easy reach.

  • Only smoke fire safe Reduced Ignition Propensity (RIP) cigarettes or hand rolled tobacco. Since November 2011 all cigarettes sold in Europe must conform to RIP standards.

  • Try not to smoke when tired.

  • Try to avoid wearing loose fitting clothing. Some clothing fabrics are less ignitable than others, click here to find out more.

  • Consider placing a fire retardant cover over the lap or wearing a smoking apron (suppliers can be found via the internet).

  • Consider using fire retardant bed covers (suppliers can be found via the internet).

  • Ensure you have a working smoke alarm and test it weekly.

There are often tell-tail signs of near-misses, these include spent matches in and around where the person regularly smokes. Look out for burn and scorch marks on clothing, bedding, upholstery and carpets.

If you are a Carer or have concerns over a vulnerable smoker please contact your Fire and Rescue Service Community Safety Team who will be able to advise on fire safety measures that  can be used to help protect the individual.

They may also be able to provide and install free equipment ranging from smoke detectors to sprinkler systems, some Fire and Rescue Services may also provide fire retardant lap covers and bedding.

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