Heating costs could lead to increase in fires, official says

November 07, 2005|by ERIN CUNNINGHAM


Cold and desperate for a cheap way to heat their home, some county residents might turn to unsafe or bizarre ways to stay warm this winter.

So says Mike Weller, the Hagerstown Fire Department's life safety educator.

Turning on the oven and all four stove burners, and using dangerous kerosene heaters are options some choose, Weller said.

But his fear is that more people might be dusting off old, unsafe heating appliances in the next few months as the weather turns colder and heat becomes expensive.

"We (in the fire service) like the weather right now," Weller said. "Because we know what will happen when it gets cold."


Heating fires account for 36 percent of residential home fires in rural areas each year, according to the United States Fire Administration.

Weller said because heating costs could double this season due to high fuel costs, that number likely will be higher than ever.

Wood and pellet stoves can provide cheap heat, but Weller said often they are not properly installed. He recommends a professional inspector oversee installation or install the appliances.

The three most common causes of heating fires are: lack of maintenance, improper disposal of ashes and faulty installation, which Weller said is rarely the case if a professional installs the device.

Once any heating device is operational, there is a risk of igniting something nearby: A loose nightgown, a rug or furniture could get too close to a space heater, kerosene heater or other device and ignite, Weller said, noting there should be 3 feet between a heating device and anything else.

Heating safety relies a lot on common sense, he said.

For instance, do not fill up a kerosene heater with fuel while it is on and only put kerosene into a kerosene heater, Weller said.

But there are less obvious dangers, too.

Weller warned not to coil extension cords for a space heater because the cords could get too hot and ignite.

"It's just a lot of little things to keep you safe," Weller said.

Many residents living in apartments do not know that kerosene heaters are not permitted in apartment buildings, he said. Because of a number of fires started in apartments by kerosene heaters, a state law was passed banning that use.

Residents planning to use a fireplace over the winter to heat their homes should check on the "integrity of the chimney," Weller said, making sure the chimney lining is secure and that there are no combustibles inside.

Any ashes disposed of from a fireplace or other heating device should be disposed of carefully. Each winter, Weller said at least six significant fires start because of hot ashes.

The ashes should be thrown into a metal container, taken a few feet from the home and then wet, he said.

Weller said ideally everyone will abide by every safety recommendation, but he doesn't think that's likely.

"That would be my utopia if they did, though," Weller said.

Weller said anyone with questions about heating devices may him at 301-739-8577, ext. 415.

Heating safety

· Have chimneys and wood stoves inspected and cleaned annually by a certified chimney specialist.

· Clear the area around the hearth of debris, decorations and flammable materials.

· Always use a metal mesh screen with fireplaces. Leave glass doors open while burning a fire.

· Use fire-resistant materials on walls around wood stoves.

· Never use flammable liquids to start a fire.

· Use only seasoned hardwood.

· Build small fires that burn completely and produce less smoke.

· Never burn cardboard boxes, trash or debris in your fireplace or wood stove.

· Never leave a fire in a fireplace unattended. Extinguish the fire before going to bed or leaving the house.

· Soak hot ashes in water and place them in a metal container outside your home.

· Stack firewood outdoors at least 30 feet away from your home.

· Fireplaces should be cleaned out frequently and chimneys should be inspected for obstructions and cracks to prevent deadly chimney and roof fires.

· Install smoke alarms on every level of your home and check them monthly. Call your local fire department if you need a smoke alarm installed in your home.

· Provide proper venting systems for all heating equipment.

Tips compiled by the United States Fire Administration.

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