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There were three fire deaths in Buffalo in 1999.

The number this year is already two -- one on New Year's Day on Zenner Street, the other early Saturday on Erskine Avenue.

Grand Island, Clarence and Cambria have also had fire deaths in the first days of 2000.

Is this unusual?

"It's hard to say," noted Walter Clark, a veteran Buffalo fire investigator. "Some years, you have next to nothing. Other years, a whole bunch (of fire deaths) come along. You can't really say what's unusual, or what's usual."

Weather is not this month's culprit -- with three of the five local fire deaths attributed to careless smoking; the fourth not yet determined; and Saturday's, grease left on the stove.

Jacob Benton, 55, the father of two Buffalo firefighters, was this year's first fire victim. He died shortly after 5 p.m. on New Year's Day in a blaze in his 77 Zenner St. flat. The cause is listed as careless smoking.

Joseph Goupil of 1266 East Park Road, Grand Island, was this year's second fire victim, dying in a blaze in his home shortly before midnight Jan. 13, the day after his 64th birthday. Careless smoking is suspected as the cause of this fire as well.

Mildred S. Biermann, 81, of 4194 Cameron Drive, Clarence, was 2000's third local fire victim. She died after a 1:30 p.m. fire Jan. 14 in her home. Again, careless smoking is the suspected cause.

Anna Wedeman, 73, was the area's fourth fire victim, in a blaze shortly before 5 a.m. Wednesday in her home at 4907 Thrall Road, Cambria. Fire investigators spent the next day and evening, sifting through rubble, trying to find the cause of the blaze.

James Volkosh, fire coordinator and director of emergency services for Niagara County, said the Thrall Road fire is still under investigation.

". . . there's a very good possibility that the exact cause may not ever be found," he said.

Volkosh added that often happens in fires with very heavy damage, which makes it difficult to find where the fire started.

Rachel Hemphill, 63, a blind woman who lived with her husband and other relatives at 68 Erskine Ave., was the fifth and latest local fire victim, dying in a fall from the second story of her home as she tried to escape a 4:30 a.m. blaze Saturday.

That blaze, according to fire officials, was caused by grease igniting in a pan on an electric stove.

Niagara Correspondent Mike Kurilovitch contributed to this story.

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