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Officials investigate why smoke detector found charred after fire killed mother, daughter didn’t sound

Data pix.

COLUMBIA, Pa. -- A Pennsylvania mother and daughter died in a fire Saturday morning, Jan. 4, and fire officials said it could've been prevented. 

Columbia Borough Fire Chief Douglas Kemmerly said Monday, Jan. 6 that the home on the 200 block of South Second Street had just one smoke detector, and it wasn't working at the time of the fire.

As family and neighbors mourned the loss of Cami Jo Combs, 20, and her 2-year-old daughter, Callie Jo Flowers, Kemmerly and officials with Columbia Borough's Department of Codes worked to figure out why the detector didn't sound.

According to Kemmerly, the battery inside the detector had "enough juice." Firefighters found it mounted on a wall inside the home.

According to Paul Paulsen, a spokesperson with Columbia Borough's Department of Codes, the dwelling did not have enough smoke detectors. The last inspection in April 2019 showed all smoke detectors were present and working.

Paulsen added there's a fine for non-present or non-working smoke detector -- $25 per detector. He said he could not comment on whether anyone would be fined.

Neighbors said they couldn’t believe it.

"My bedroom window is right there at the top, and I look out my window, and I know there was a horrible thing over there," said Nashawna Herchelroth, neighbor.

“All of a sudden, the smoke was billowing out all four of the windows, and it was coming out the neighbor's, and every roof of one of these houses," said Robert Dorrett, neighbor.

Firefighters arrived in minutes and did what they call "a 360" of the home.

“I could hear the crackling of the fire from inside the home, but I didn’t hear any smoke detectors from the exterior, which is really unusual," Kemmerly said.

Kemmerly said firefighters recovered the home’s only smoke detector, charred and melted.

Even in extreme heat, he said, it should have pierced through the row home’s walls.

“It goes off. Three beeps. You let go of the detector it stops beeping," he explained during a test of the same model of detector Monday morning.

Kemmerly said people should test their detectors once a month.

“Our codes require one in every bedroom as well," he said. "It was a three-bedroom home, so they needed a total of seven smoke detectors by code inside this house, and they had one that wasn’t working. A $25 smoke detector that would be working could’ve changed the lives of two beautiful people. It’s horrible, especially when we give them away for free."

Investigators determined that the cause of the fire was an accident. Kemmerly said a trashcan placed on top of the kitchen stove ignited, but officials could not say why.

In the meantime, Kemmerly warned, people should not place things on top of their stoves.

Kemmerly added the fire had something in common with other deadly fires in the borough. He said none of those houses had working smoke detectors either.

The chief reminded Columbia residents that firefighters give out smoke detectors for free. They also test and install them for homeowners, as well.

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