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Fires took 10 local lives in ’18

January 6, 2019

Jeffrey Wayne Rhoades went to his mother’s house for dinner every Sunday.

When he didn’t show up Oct. 28, she and others knew something was wrong.

He died earlier that day in a house fire on Rohman Road northeast of New Haven.

Rhoades was one of 10 people who died in seven house fires in Allen County in 2018, the deadliest year in the county in nine years.

Northeast Indiana saw additional fatal blazes, and at least 90 people died in house fires across the state, an increase of about 25 percent over 2017, when 72 fatal fires were reported to the Indiana fire marshal’s office. In 2017 in Allen County, one man died in an apartment fire, and a firefighter died from a heart attack after leading what co-workers described as a strenuous nighttime training exercise.

Investigators have determined causes of three of the 2018 fatal blazes in Allen County. The other four are still under investigation or undetermined.

State Fire Marshal Jim Greeson said Indiana had several blazes involving multiple deaths in 2018.

One fatal fire occurred May 26 : Memorial Day weekend : in the 9200 block of Wheelock Road near Flutter Road. Larry B. Shaw II, 47, Amber Dawn Shaw, 43, and Elijah Shaw, 12, all died from injuries suffered in the blaze, though the manner in which they died is undetermined, the coroner said. Investigators haven’t determined a cause because of extensive damage, so the cause is considered undetermined unless there is new information, Greeson said.

“It’s very difficult to get back in and reconstruct and ID what the cause might have been,” he said in December.

Another fire, at 1211 Huestis Ave. on Feb. 2, claimed multiple lives. Nancy R. Gaff, 68, and Jack Lee Short, 60, died from smoke inhalation and Short also had thermal burns. Although their deaths were ruled accidental by the Allen County coroner, the cause of the fire is under investigation, said Adam O’Connor, Fort Wayne Fire Department deputy chief.

One fire resulted in criminal charges. On Sept. 12, Lizzie Caldwell went to a neighbor’s house desperately seeking help after her estranged husband allegedly doused her with gasoline and set her on fire at her home at 5613 S. Harrison St. Caldwell died Sept. 28, and Eddie Lee Caldwell, 54, was charged with murder, burglary, arson, aggravated battery and invasion of privacy. His trial is scheduled for February.

Investigators believe a liquefied petroleum gas leak sparked an explosion and blaze Nov. 13 at 5202 W. Wallen Road. Nathan Sliger, 55, died from smoke inhalation and thermal burns and his death was ruled accidental.

“In the fire world, we’re always seeing LP (liquefied petroleum) seeking a fire ignition source,” Greeson said.

In late October, an electric blanket caused a fire that killed Jeffrey Wayne Rhoades, 55, at his Rohman Road home.

Rhoades’ daughter, Jaimie Rhoades of Antwerp, Ohio, said his death made the holiday season : a time when many are rejoicing : challenging. She reminded people to “be mindful and be careful.”

Greeson can relate. In the late 1970s, a heating blanket caused a fire in his house.

Heating devices, including electric blankets, space heaters and wood burning stoves, are used more often as the weather becomes colder, and “we had an exceptionally cold fall,” Greeson said.

Heating devices are the second most common cause of house fires. Cooking is No. 1 and discarded smoking materials are the third most common cause.

“We just can’t impress enough the importance of good housekeeping,” Greeson said. “Keep combustibles : trash, newspapers : away from heating sources.” He also cautioned not to go back inside a burning home when you get out.

Investigators also stressed making sure homes have working smoke detectors. “They’re designed to wake you up,” O’Connor said.

Of the seven fatal house fires in the county, investigators said they didn’t know if there were smoke detectors in five of the homes.

There was a working smoke detector in the South Harrison Street home where arson is alleged. There was no working smoke detector in a home on Ensign Court that burned a year ago, the Fort Wayne Fire Department said.

The number of 2018 fire-related deaths might remind some of another tragic year. In 2009, there were 11 such deaths in the county.

The fatalities included a 23-year-old woman, her 8-month-old fetus and her two children, ages 5 and 4, in a house fire on East Jefferson Boulevard; and three women, two of them age 19 and one 18, at the Willows of Coventry apartment complex.

In addition, three children, ages 7, 10 and 12, died in a house fire on Abbott Street, and a 55-year-old woman died when her garage exploded on Corto Calle Street.

jchapman@jg.net

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