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Winter fire safety: Prevention is the key

weston-candles-christmas fire safetyNow that winter is here, ’tis the season to keep the home fires burning. But it’s also important to take precautions to keep a fire from burning your home.

A fire can happen at any time of day, when people least expect it.

The three deadliest months for fire are December, January and February, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The danger is primarily due to cold weather, which means more space heaters are being used, more fires are being lit, and houses are closed up tight, increasing the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Home heating mishaps are the No. 2 cause of house fires (second only to cooking).

In 2010, heating equipment was involved in an estimated 57,100 reported U.S. home structure fires, with associated losses of 490 civilian deaths, 1,530 civilian injuries, and $1.1 billion in direct property damage, according to NFPA.

Space heaters accounted for one-third of home heating fires and four out of five (79%) of home heating fire deaths.

Placing things that burn — mattresses, Christmas trees or upholstered furniture — too close to heat sources was the leading factor in fatal home heating fires and accounted for more than half of home heating fire deaths, according to NFPA.

No. 1 precaution

The No. 1 precaution homeowners can take to prevent injury, death, and extensive property damage from fires is to install and properly maintain smoke alarms and carbon monoxide (CO) detectors, said Weston Fire Chief John Pokorny, who also serves as the town’s fire marshal.

“Smoke detectors offer an early warning. Having detectors is a lifesaver,” he said.

Weston also has a CO detector ordinance requiring homes to have detectors in order to prevent accidental poisoning from carbon monoxide — a deadly odorless, colorless gas produced from incomplete oxidation during combustion.

But just having detectors is not enough, Chief Pokorny said. “They have to be properly maintained and in good working order,” he said.

That means changing batteries at least twice a year, testing detectors once a month, and replacing them completely at least every 10 years. Chief Pokorny recommends having both CO and smoke detectors on every level of a house.

With several extended power outages in the last few years, more Westonites are installing or using gas-powered generators in their homes.

Chief Pokorny said the Fire Department got a lot of calls during Superstorm Sandy about carbon monoxide coming from generators. “It’s very important that generators are properly maintained,” he said.

Fireplace safety

Homeowners also need to beware of ashes, Chief Pokorny said. Every year, a number of fires are caused by improperly stored ashes from fireplaces. “That’s always a problem,” Chief Pokorny said.

In 2011, a Christmas morning fire claimed the lives of five people — three children and their grandparents — in Stamford when a bag of fireplace ashes left overnight near the back of the house ignited.

Although a fire may look as if it’s out, the embers in the ashes can be hot enough to start a fire 24 hours after they are disposed. For that reason, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) recommends that ashes be allowed to cool for at least 72 hours before disposing of them in a metal container, never paper or anything flammable.

Other USFA fireplace safety tips:

  • Clear the area around the hearth of debris, decorations and flammable materials.
  • Overbuilt fires can ignite creosote in the chimney, so don’t use too much paper to build fires.
  • Use only seasoned hardwood. Soft, moist wood accelerates creosote buildup. In pellet stoves, burn only dry, seasoned wood pellets.
  • Build small fires that burn completely and produce less smoke.
  • Never burn cardboard boxes, trash or debris in your fireplace or woodstove.
  • Never burn charcoal indoors; it can give off lethal amounts of carbon monoxide.
  • Never break a synthetic log apart or use more than one at a time; they often burn unevenly, releasing higher levels of carbon monoxide.
  • Never close the damper with hot ashes in the fireplace; it could cause the fire to heat up and force carbon monoxide into the house.
  • If you leave ashes in the fireplace, make sure there’s a metal screen or glass partition in place.

It’s also important to have your chimney or woodstove inspected and cleaned annually by a certified chimney specialist, Chief Pokorny said. “And don’t leave a fire going when you go to bed. Make sure the fire is out,” he said.

Candles

While candles are popular this time of year and give off a beautiful glow, they can also be dangerous. NFPA says burning candles should not be left unattended, or placed near flammable materials. Keep candles in a secure place where children and pets won’t knock them over.

Candles should be placed in a non-tip candleholder before they are lit, and extinguished before leaving a room or going to bed.

The most common area of origin for candle fires is the bedroom, then living rooms, bathrooms and the kitchen.

Lesson from Sandy

After dealing with two destructive 100-year storms with prolonged power outages in the past couple of years, homeowners are advised to keep a winter emergency supply kit on hand, including fire safety items.

The kit will help in a variety of emergency situations and should include flashlight and extra batteries, portable radio or NOAA weather radio with extra batteries, charged cell phone, first-aid kit, essential prescription medicines, non-perishable food, manual can opener, water (one gallon per person/per day), fire extinguisher, and a family emergency communications plan.

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