Risk of house fire goes up in winter

As the weather gets colder, fire officials warn people to be careful what is put near heat sources

WOODBURN INDEPENDENT (October 30, 2010) – Woodburn Fire Chief Paul Iverson warned this week about increased fire risks with the coming winter.

According to the fire official, this time of year brings greater personal safety hazards with things like space heaters, propane tanks and possibilities for overloaded circuitry.

That said, there are basic precautions people can take, he said. Although some may seem obvious, Iverson said every year his department responds to calls from citizens who haven’t heeded them.

“You want to keep all heaters a safe distance away from flammable products,” he said.

“If you have portable or moveable space heaters, you shouldn’t have pets in the same room because it can accidentally tip them over.

“We’ve seen it (range) from just doing minimal damages to basically burning whole houses down with the heater being too close to flammables.”

Don’t pile coats on top of space heaters or place anything on top of them, he said. One of the most common causes of space heater-related fires is curtains getting too close, he said, although sofas and other furniture or combustibles also play a role.

It is also important for people to check their smoke detectors, Iverson said, and replace the batteries before winter begins. If people can’t or don’t have the means to do so, contact the fire department and they can come check, he said.

People who cannot afford to get a smoke detector for the house can inquire about grants and programs available through the fire district, he added.

Iverson noted the importance of getting wood stoves and fireplaces cleaned and inspected before using them for the first time this year. Also, don’t overload circuits, particularly with space heaters, he said.

Another fire risk that is elevated this time of year, Iverson said, is carbon monoxide poisoning. This is because people sometimes try to use alternative heating sources that are not safe.

“Some people will use barbecues in the house or use other propane sources for heat inside,” he said.

“We’ve seen in the past where people have done that and then had calls where people have had carbon monoxide poisoning.”

For that reason, it is critical to make sure to only use approved heating methods to keep warm, he said.

Generally, people use the barbecues or propane inside because they don’t understand the risk or because they don’t have the money for something else. It is sometimes seen as a “cheap, easy source of heat,” he said.

In this economy, that is especially important to be aware of.

According to State Fire Marshal Randy Simpson, sources of carbon monoxide include equipment that burns fuels like gasoline, wood, coal, natural gas, propane, oil and methane. It can be fatal if not detected early, he said.

Simpson said there were at least five home fires just last week in Oregon that were related to fireplaces and woodstoves. One of them resulted in the death of a 6-year-old.

The death largely prompted Simpson to send out a statewide informational alert reminding people about the precautions to take with the cooler temperatures.

Things like using a fireplace screen, keeping the home clutter-free, storing kindling and wood at least three feet from any heat source and disposing of ashes in a tightly-covered metal container outside at least 10 feet from the home, were all tips Simpson included.

He also pointed to measures to take with portable heaters, like making sure they come with an automatic tip-over switch and a high-temperature limit switch, checking their electrical cords for frayed parts or cracks, never using extension cords with them and always unplugging the heaters before bed.

Electric baseboard and wall heaters also pose certain threats, he said, because they are thermostatically-controlled and turn on without warning when temperatures drop.

Combustibles should be kept at least three feet from those types of heaters too.

If residents ever smell gas they should not operate any switches, appliances or thermostats, Simpson said, because a spark could ignite it. Get everyone outside and away from the building, he said, and shut off the gas supply. Then call the propane supplier from a neighbor’s phone.

Avoid kerosene heaters, which can emit poisonous fumes, replace smoke alarms eight to 10 years old or older and make sure your household has a home escape plan you practice, Simpson added.

From 2005 through 2009 in Oregon, there were 2,323 home heating-related fires resulting in eight deaths, 70 injuries and more than $37 million in property loss, according to the fire marshal.

Eighty percent of home heating fires occur during October through March.

– Rachel Cavanaugh, Woodburn Independent

Original story

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