The number of annual fire deaths in the United States has been cut in half since 1980, and while the number also has gone down in West Virginia, the state's incidence has remained significantly higher than the national average.
From 1980 to 1984, an average 23 of 1 million Americans died annually in house fires, according to data from the National Fire Protection Association. In West Virginia, the rate was 33 per million for that period.
In 2008, the last year for which data is available, the national average had dropped to 12 of every 1 million. The state average had dropped as well, but at 23.7 per million, remained much higher than the national mark, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
Carol Nolte, public education officer for the West Virginia Fire Commission, can't explain why.
"That's a good question," she said. "That's one I've thought about over and over again."
There have perennially been more people who smoked, who lived in poverty or who had low levels of education in West Virginia, Nolte said. Those are three big factors tied statistically to residential fires.
State officials also have recognized the need for more public fire safety education.
A January report by the Legislative Auditor's Office found that the fire commission has not devoted more resources to education despite recommendations that it do so.
"In the final analysis, the current level of Commission resources devoted to public education and awareness has suffered since 2004 and is not significantly more than in 2000," the report states.
Nolte said about $81,000 a year has been dedicated to education efforts. But those funds do not cover employee salaries and benefits.
In the 13 years Nolte has been the public education officer, she has been the sole non-clerical fire safety educator on the state level.
"It's all we can do in the face of really no personnel," Nolte said.
The legislative auditor's report states that even though the public education office received four additional employees in 2004, "It was reported that the (public education officer's) number of responsibilities made it difficult to increase the awareness of fire safety."
Nolte said other employees were there to answer the phone for several programs that have since been transferred to the Division of Homeland Security. Now she has one clerical assistant to help with the office website and press releases while she oversees five or six statewide programs.
While fire departments are also tasked with fire education, Nolte said they pay more attention to actually fighting fires and other obligations.
Right now it's up to her to coordinate a smoke detector distribution program and fire safety training for caretakers and other similar occupations, administer the fire-safe cigarette certification program and oversee four or five other programs.
"It still comes down to no personnel in the field . . . and that's just not adequate," Nolte said.
Along with her office's $81,000 operating budget, which does not include funding for the salaries of Nolte or her assistant, the department also received more than $71,000 to help with the fire-safe cigarette certification program.
"Although additional funds are available, they cannot be utilized" due to a lack of personnel, the report states.
Including the nine people who died two weeks ago in a house fire on Arlington Avenue on Charleston's West Side, there have been 54 deaths in West Virginia since July 1, Nolte said.
It's as many fatalities as she can remember in such a time span, she said.