Fatal Banstead house fire likely started by unattended cooking, coroner finds

Phil King via istock.com
By Julie Armstrong, Local Democracy Reporter, 11 June

The cousin of a woman who died in a Banstead house fire said there was no way of knowing what might have been if the town’s fire station still had a night-time crew.

Valerie Lowe, 74, died in the early hours of the morning in March, when the house she lived in alone on Holly Lane West caught fire – just one mile away from the closed Banstead Fire Station.

Ms Lowe had issues with hoarding and had no smoke alarms, Surrey Coroner’s Court heard on Friday (11 June), and the fire is likely to have started when cooking was left unattended.

Ms Lowe, described by the coroner as “fiercely independent and almost reclusive”, is thought to have been above the kitchen in the bathroom, but this collapsed when the ceiling burned through.

When police forced entry to her large detached house they found it “filled with items scattered around”. It was said to be in a “general state of disrepair, with large areas of hoarding”.

Ms Lowe’s cousin, Paul Pearce, said: “She will be greatly missed; we’re going to miss her phone conversations.”

“Banstead was closed that night. You don’t know if it would have made a difference,” he said.

“They would have been there in two minutes, but you just don’t know.”

The fire service arrived on scene at 2.56am, a quarter of an hour after being called at 2.41am, and over its 10-minute target response time.

Dr Karen Henderson, assistant coroner for Surrey, concluded Ms Lowe’s death was accidental, caused by smoke inhalation and a severely burned body due to fire.

She said: “It was more likely than not to be unattended cooking [that caused the fire], which progressed because of the cluttering of the property and the absence of any smoke alarms that perhaps would have alerted her to a fire.

“Because of the extent of the fire, that resulted in the ceiling collapsing. She was probably unconscious at the time.”

Despite much protest from the Fire Brigades Union, Banstead along with Painshill and Egham fire stations lost their night-time crews at the end of last year and now rely on neighbouring stations between 7pm and 7am.

It was part of the service’s Making Surrey Safer plan which was said to “rebalance resources” by moving cover to daytime.

In response to a petition to keep fire stations open and crewed, signed by more than 6,000 people, the then cabinet member for communities Denise Turner-Stewart last year said performance data showed they were “exceeding our target of first frontline appliance to critical incidents within 10 minutes”.

A Surrey Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) spokesperson said: ”The thoughts of everyone within SFRS remain with the resident’s family and friends.

“In regards to this particular tragic fire in Banstead, it is clear from investigations that the fire had already taken a firm hold in the house in Holly Lane West by the time we got the first call from neighbours.

“Therefore, response time did not play a factor in this woman sadly losing her life.

“The most important message here is to remind all residents to ensure they have working smoke alarms. Please test alarms weekly and ensure family and friends are safe too. Book a free Safe and Well visit.”