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Staying Warm And Staying Alive

By Staff | Dec 16, 2010

With the winter season fully entrenched on the area, many folks turn to supplemental heating sources to combat the plunging mercury on these cold winter nights. For some folks, throwing a log on the fireplace helps take the chill off, and for others, turning on an electrical space heater fills the bill to warm up a chilly room.

Unfortunately, these two supplemental heat sources, which are the most common, are also most often the leading cause of home fires and fire fatalities in the United States. According to the National Fire Protection Association’s latest report detailing U.S. home fires, supplemental heating equipment – primarily space heaters and fireplaces – were identified as causing an estimated 66,100 home structure fires in 2008. Those fires resulted in the deaths of 480 people, injuries to 1,660 people and the loss of $1.1 billion of property due to fire in 2008, the most recent year of data reviewed by the non-profit agency.

Even though the statistics are grim, there is good news in the report. Fires caused by supplemental home heating equipment actually declined a half a percent in 2008 from the prior year, 2007. However, there is still much room for improvement. As fire officials remind the public, even one life lost, one injury, one piece of property that receives damage because of a fire that could have been prevented is too much.

When looking at accidental fires, electric space heaters are usually cited as the cause of more fires that standard central heating devices such as furnaces or boilers. The HFPA reports that between 2004 and 2008, both stationary and portable electric space heaters, along with wood stoves, accounted for a third of all the reported home heating-related fires in the U.S, as well as four out of five fire-related deaths, two-thirds of the injuries to residents and half of the fire-related property damage an the average each year during the period.

For wood burning fireplaces, the danger of creosote fires in chimneys is equally as dangerous. Creosote is the sticky, oily, combustible substance that is created when wood doesn’t burn completely. It rises in a chimney as a liquid and sticks on the chimney wall. Most creosote fires result from a failure to clean chimney flues, which allows the flammable material to ignite inside the chimney or flue. Other solid-fueled heaters, such as wood pellet burners, can also experience such fires in their chimneys or chimney connections.

A reported 15,200 creosote fires equated to nearly a quarter of all home heating fires during the 2004-2008 period. Those fires caused four deaths, 17 injuries to residents and nearly $34 million in property damage on the average each year of the four-year period. – 23 percent of all home heating fires – resulted in four civilian deaths, 17 civilian injuries and $33 million in direct property damage, on average, each year from 2004 to 2008.

Reports show that half of all home heating fires occur in December, January and February, with most of the heating equipment fires starting because the heating units were not properly maintained, which includes cleaning. Other causes of fires include placing heat sources too close to flammable items, such as curtains, upholstered furniture, bedding or mattresses.

Research has proven that most home heating fires are largely the result of human error, and that means a majority can be prevented. Following basic, common sense safety precautions can greatly reduce the risk of using supplemental heating equipment. The NFPA offers the following advice to stay warm and fire-safe during the heating season:

-All heaters need space. Keep things that can burn, such as paper, bedding or furniture, at least three (3) feet away from the heating equipment.

-Use heating equipment that has the label of a recognized testing laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratory (UL).

-Install stationary space heating equipment, water heaters or central heating equipment according to all local codes and manufacturer’s instructions. Always have qualified professional install permanent equipment.

-Always make sure all fuel-burning equipment is vented to the outside to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon Monoxide (CO) is created when fuels burn incompletely. Carbon Monoxide poisoning can cause illness and even death.

-When venting the exhaust of a heating unit, always make sure the exhaust vent is kept clear and unobstructed. This includes the removal of any snow or ice that builds up around the outlet to the outside.

-Always install and maintain carbon monoxide alarms inside your home to provide early warning of carbon monoxide. At the same time, check all smoke detectors or install smoke detectors for added warning.

-Keep heating equipment and chimneys maintained by having them cleaned and inspected annually by a qualified professional.

-Always turn space heaters off when you leave a room or go to sleep.

A few moments to turn off a heater and the use of common sense can go a long way to help keep you and yours warm and safe to enjoy the holidays and the entire winter season.