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Winter Fire Prevention

Over $2 billion dollars in damages occur each year due to winter home fires.   That is billion with a B.  That’s a shocking amount of money considering home fires are so preventable.  Thankfully, mostly due to smoke alarms, the death toll from winter home fires is much lower at about 900 per year.  (This is still too high in my book – please make sure your smoke alarms have fresh batteries and are in working order…same with your carbon monoxide detectors while you’re at it.)  Let’s look at the causes of winter home fires and learn how to prevent them.

We will start with the leading form of winter home fires.  It’s cooking!  (My spouse would probably not be surprised by this, but my cooking is just bad, not burnt!)  In all seriousness, here are some things that cause kitchen fires:

**Grease fires.  Grease fires are often caused when grease splashes from the pan to the flame.  The best way to extinguish a grease fire is to put a lid on the pan to smother the flame and/or use a fire extinguisher to put the fire out.

**Cooking equipment left unattended.  This means stoves, electric skillets, and anything you use to cook with that is not meant to be left alone – like ovens or crockpots.  A big source of fires comes from turkey fryers.   The combination of cooking oil and heat and holiday fun sometime result in disaster.  The holidays are past us now, but it’s still a good thing to remember.

**Pets!  Yes, your four legged friends are often the cause of fires in the kitchen.  Even if you’re IN the kitchen, you need to keep an eye on your stove.  Cats in particular are responsible for knocking things off the stove or knocking into something that can knock something onto or off of the stove.  Dogs, too, though.  Be mindful of any pet that can wander near your cooking.

**Random flammable stuff near fire.  How’s that for a category?  Sounds like common sense, but there are things you use in the kitchen – near the flames – that often cause fire.  What things?  Things like paper towels, dish towels, potholders, your apron, your #1 Dad sweatshirt with the overstretched sleeves that hang down too close to the flame, your crossword puzzle (this is not the time to multi-task), etc.

Another winter fire hazard is candles.  I personally don’t use them.  Not for birthday cakes, not for hot baths, not for romantic dinners, not for jack-o-lanterns, not for anything?  Why?  Because I’m the world’s biggest klutz and am terrified of causing a fire this way.  Candle fires are usually caused when candles are tipped over and often people don’t realize they have done it until it’s too late.  If you do use candles, make sure they are put in sturdy candleholders where they cannot be knocked over easily.  Keep them away from flammables such as curtains and make sure to extinguish them before leaving the house or going to bed.

Fireplaces and electric heaters are also a cause of winter fire hazards.   I know some people use fireplaces as trash cans.  This is a no-no in the land of fire safety.  Papers that burn quickly can cause sparks and embers to fly.  Not a good thing for your living room rug or couch.  Use a screen in front of your fireplace and keep the area around the fireplace free of decorations or anything flammable.  Electric heaters should be plugged in by themselves and kept away from flammable objects as well.  Buy an electric heater that shuts off automatically if it falls over.  An electric heater should never be left on while you are sleeping.   Most electric heater fires occur when residents are asleep and their electric heater is placed too close to something flammable – such as their bedding.  Electric heaters are the cause of about 200 deaths per year.  They should only be used if they can be supervised.

A few other causes of winter fires are things holiday related.  Live Christmas trees become very dry if not kept watered and can easily catch fire.  Make sure they are watered daily and kept away from potential fire hazards.  Christmas lights can also be a problem.  Do not use lights with cracked cords.  Same goes for extension cords.  If you decorate the outside of your home, make sure the lights are labeled for exterior use.  With either interior or exterior lights, do not overload outlets.  It may have worked for Ralphie’s family in A Christmas Story, but it’s truly a danger and a major cause of fires during the holiday season.  See more info on electric fires here!

Lastly, while it’s not fire per se, let’s talk carbon monoxide.  It’s called the silent killer because it’s odorless, colorless, tasteless, and it kills about 200 unsuspecting people each year in the United States.  It is produced from anything that burns fuel – so unless your home is without a furnace, you are not immune.  Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, confusion, loss of coordination, loss of consciousness, and death.  Spend a few bucks and invest in a detector.  People often complained (myself included) that CO detectors would go off unnecessarily creating false alarms.  This actually happened to me a few times and I called the fire department each time immediately to have my house inspected.  Better safe than sorry, right?  Detectors have greatly improved since they were first introduced, though, so don’t assume you’re having a false alarm if your alarm goes off.

Regardless of your winter fire prevention techniques, make sure to keep working smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors in your home.  It is recommended that you change batteries in these devices every six months.  If you live in an area that has a time change twice a year (fall back, spring forward), this is a good time to get into the habit of doing it.  Also keep a fire extinguisher anywhere in the home you think you may need one – the kitchen and laundry room are a good place to start.  In the event you do have a fire, alert your family to evacuate and call the fire department immediately – even if you do think you can put it out yourself.  Again, better safe than sorry!


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