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After fire tragedy, observant Jews and fire officials eager to reduce the risk

In preparation for Passover, a group learned several safety tips in dealing with holiday safety risks including lighting candles.
In preparation for Passover, a group learned several safety tips in dealing with holiday safety risks including lighting candles. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

As a mother of seven children, Josephine Basher was in tears when she heard about the horrific house fire in Brooklyn that killed seven children.

The children died when a hot plate malfunctioned after it was left on overnnight to keep the family’s food warm on the Jewish Sabbath.

“It could have been any of us,” said Basher, who lives in Northeast Miami-Dade and bserves the Sabbath weekly, lighting candles and leaving a slow cooker on for at least 24 hours. "They were a regular family, doing their regular thing on a regular Shabbat."

The tragedy in New York two weeks ago brought together observant Jews and Miami-Dade firefighters this week. A workshop on Monday night workshop at Young Israel in North Miami Beach offered advice on keeping safe while adhering to tradition.

Basher,who refrains from using electricity every Friday evening through Saturday night, brought her 16-year-old daughter, Reena, to the workshop.

“Truth be told we would probably not be here if that tragedy didn’t just happen,” Basher said.

With the eight-day Passover holiday starting Friday, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue workers and members of Hatzalah, a Jewish emergency response service, teamed up to offer fire-safety tips to the faithful. Some of the advice included basic safety reminders: Come up with a fire escape plan, never leave candles burning unattended, check smoke detectors twice a year.

Like many Jewish holidays, Passover — which commemorates the Jewish exodus from Egypt — involves candles and burning as part of religious symbolism and the retelling of the ancient story.

“Every religion has traditions and customs they follow and when following those customs they need to make sure they are doing them in the safest manner,” said Miami-Dade Fire spokeswoman Michelle Fayed.

For Passover, observant Jews burn bread, light candles and thoroughly clean their homes, some using a blow torch, to get ready for the holiday. And candles also are lit every Friday night for the Sabbath. The most observant follow the ancient rule of not using electricity for more than 24 hours. That means slow cookers, ovens and hot plates are left on, some set on a timer.

So the risk of fire is always there.

“Safety always needs to come first,” said Howard Sickles, a retired deputy fire chief with New York City Fire Department and a paramedic with Hazalah in New York who came to South Florida to speak at the workshop.

Sickles was a first responder at the Brooklyn fire just after midnight March 21. He said there were no smoke detectors near the bedrooms of the old house.

“As I walked up they were pulling the children out,” he said. “I have dealt with a lot of tragedy in my career but this had to be one of the worst cases.”

Sickles’ message was simple: “Safety first.”

The workshop gave Sorah Ross some things to think about. Ross, who has six children ages 4 to 15, said the Northeast Miami-Dade home they are renting does not have smoke detectors.

“We are going to get our own and install them right away,” she said, adding that fire safety has always been a concern of hers.

“We always wait for the candles to be out before we go to sleep,” she said.

Zalman Cohen, director of operations for Hatzalah Miami-Dade, said it’s common to hear about kitchen and candle fires. Hatzalah Executive Director Baruch Sandhaus said many fires can be avoided by following safety guidelines.

“You can still follow traditions and be safe,” Sandhaus said.

Fayed of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said the county doesn’t keep track of fires caused by hot plates, candles or other holiday rituals, but they do happen. In 2007, a fire that started amid Hanukkah doughnut-making at a Northeast Miami-Dade synagogue caused $100,000 in damage. More than three years ago, a fire in an Aventura condo started when holiday candles ignited curtains.

Cohen said the community needs a reminder on what could happen.

“If one fire could be avoided the whole thing was worth it.”

Fire safety tips for Jewish observances

▪  Use sturdy candleholders and keep them at least four feet away from curtains, draperies, decorations, blinds and bedding. Never leave them unattended.

▪ Create a “kid-free zone” of at least three-feet around your stove.

▪ Have a pot lid handy to smother a pan fire. Shut off the heat and cover the fire with a lid.

▪ Install smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. Check the batteries twice a year.

▪ Have a home fire escape plan. Run fire drills to make sure the plan works.

Source: Miami-Dade Fire Rescue