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Mitchell hit with lots of fires so far in 2012

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Mitchell hit with lots of fires so far in 2012
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

Lately, Jacob Myers has been feeling the heat.

The 23-year-old started work as a firefighter with the Mitchell Fire Division in October. Since then, Myers estimates he has been called to between six and eight structure fires in and around the city.

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"It just seems like we're getting a lot," he said.

Statistics back up Myers' assessment.

Fires have caused more than $1.1 million of property damage in Mitchell so far this year, more than four times the total for all of 2011, according to monthly reports prepared by the Mitchell Fire Division.

Within the first four months of 2012, 26 fires caused an estimated $1,194,500 in property damage, the reports say. That figure already surpasses the estimated cost of fire damage in recent years, with $254,365 reported in 2011 and $398,605 reported in 2010. And while the total number of calls the Mitchell Fire Division has responded to in 2012 is similar to past years, the number of fires appears to be on the rise. If the current pace continues, Mitchell firefighters will have responded to 78 fires by the end of this year, an increase from the 57 fires they responded to in each of the last two years.

Myers was shocked by the cost of the damage, but said it is impossible to tell if the trend will continue.

"We could go the next six months and only have one fire," Myers said. "That's just the way it goes."

A house fire June 9 in Mitchell will add to this year's totals. Mitchell Assistant Fire Chief Paul Morris said an exact damage estimate of the fire was not yet available, but the house has already been demolished.

"It's just an unfortunate run of fires for us," Morris said. He added the circumstances of the recent fires were especially unusual because there have been no common ties among them.

Myers blamed the trend on chance.

"You can't predict fires. They just happen," he said. "But you can prevent them."

Though tragic, Myers said the recent fires have been a valuable learning experience.

Myers spent three years in school studying to be a firefighter at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wis., before taking his job in Mitchell. With the recent fires, Myers said he has been able to use everything he learned.

Even with his education, Myers said the experience of a live, uncontrolled fire is something that can't be replicated.

"You can't beat the real thing," Myers said. "Training is training, but the real thing is the real thing."

Morris also values the experience the younger members of his department have gotten recently.

"They're going to be called to duty to do that job," Morris said. "One of the best ways to learn is on the job."

Though there has been more work than normal lately, Morris said he hasn't detected any physical or mental strain among his firefighters, although the stifling heat and windy conditions during the June 9 house fire were a challenge.

"If anything wears them out, it's weather like that," he said.

Based on reports, responding to fires has actually been a relatively small part of the job for Mitchell firefighters in recent years. Between January 2010 and April 2012, the Mitchell Fire Division was called to 140 fires, which make up about 12 percent of the total calls the department responded to in that time. Other call types include emergency rescues, hazardous conditions without actual fires and false alarms.

But those 140 fires caused more than $1.8 million in damage -- about 87 percent of all losses caused by incidents the department was involved in.

Despite the high cost of the recent structure fires, there are some losses that can't be quantified.

"The most important thing we're concerned about is life safety," Morris said.

On April 21, 3-year-old Jaxon Sehnert died after suffering smoke inhalation in a Mitchell house fire. It is the only fire-related death in Mitchell this year.

Jaxon's mother Jessica Sehnert and brother Jacob Sehnert, 6, were hospitalized with smoke inhalation but have since recovered.

It was initially reported the Sehnerts' home did not have smoke detectors, but that claim was later disputed by a family member. Whatever the case, Morris said he cannot overemphasize the importance of having working smoke detectors. The Mitchell Fire Division will provide one free smoke detector per family upon request.

Morris, who began working in the Mitchell area as a firefighter and paramedic in 1998, is hopeful the recent string of fires will soon come to an end.

"This has happened in the past where it seems like we get fire after fire," Morris said. "But then we could get long dry spells as well, which isn't a bad thing."

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