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Fire officials warn of heating dangers

December 12, 2006|by PEPPER BALLARD

HAGERSTOWN - At least two fires in the Tri-State area this weekend were caused by the improper use of kerosene heaters, and a Hagerstown fire official warns that other alternative heating can cause serious consequences if used incorrectly.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, from 2002 to 2004, heating was considered the second-leading cause of residential building fires after cooking.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, heating was the leading cause of residential fires, a trend brought about by a surge in alternative heating in response to energy shortages and environmental concerns, according to a U.S. Fire Administration report.

"Now, with the turn of the economy and the price of fuel, people will be looking to these (alternatives) again," City of Hagerstown Assistant Fire Marshal Richard Miller said.

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Five people were killed Saturday in a mobile home fire in Sportsman's Paradise in Berkeley County. Officials have said the blaze was sparked by combustibles placed too close to a kerosene heater.

Miller said a fire Saturday at 224 S. Locust St. in Hagerstown, which forced a family to look for a new home, was caused by an electric heater left on in an unattended room.

Portable space heaters, though dangerous, are not the only culprit when it comes to causing fires, Miller said.

Chimneys cause the most fires, followed by household furnaces, water heaters and supplemental heaters, such as electric or kerosene heaters, according to the U.S. Fire Administration report.

Alternative heating fires can largely be prevented by routine maintenance and some common sense.

Miller highly discourages the use of kerosene heaters in apartment buildings or small homes, such as mobile homes or trailers. According to the Maryland Fire Code, a person may use an unvented, portable kerosene heater in a single-family dwelling or commercial establishment with written consent from the property owner.

According to the Maryland code, those heaters may not be used in buildings more than three stories tall, educational buildings, hotels, motels, health-care centers or day-care centers.

Miller said kerosene heaters should be filled outside with kerosene from a clearly labeled container, which is not used for gasoline. He said kerosene heaters should not be filled while warm. For those looking to buy a kerosene heater, Miller said only heaters with a tipover/shut-off switch should be purchased.

With kerosene heaters and other alternative heaters, Miller said a three-foot perimeter free of combustibles should be kept at all times.

Nothing should be placed on top of or above heaters, Miller said.

Pellet stoves and chimneys must be properly maintained, he said. Pellet stoves and electric baseboard heaters should be professionally installed, while chimneys should be professionally cleaned, he said.

"Don't overload electrical circuits," Miller said.

Combustibles should be kept away from all alternative heating devices, he said.

Children and pets should also stay away from alternative heating units, he said.

"Never use a range or an oven to heat the rest of your home," Miller said.

He said it's a commonly used alternative to other heating, but other combustible items could get into the range or oven and cause a fire.

Miller said that winter is a good time to make sure all smoke detectors are in working order.

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