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Cold weather's approach as SFD urging safety

December 23, 2010

By BRIAN HAWKINS
sdneditor@bellsouth.net

With winter’s official arrival on Tuesday and the forecast return of cooler temperatures over the next few days, Starkville Fire Department officials are again urging residents to take safety precautions as they work to keep warm.
Daytime high temperatures are forecast in the upper 40s and lower 50s today and Friday, while nighttime low temperatures are predicted to drop into mid-20s and lower 30s into the weekend.
Some precipitation — a mix of rain and snow — is forecast for Friday night, Saturday and Saturday night.
Daytime highs early next week are also forecast in the upper 30s with lows in the 20s and teens.
As residents work to keep themselves warm, there is often an increased risk of residential fires because safety precautions are not taken, said Starkville Fire Department fire marshals Stein McMullen and Mark McCurdy.
Common fire safety issues local firefighters face each year include problems with space heaters, fireplaces and chimneys, McMullen said. A weekend fire on West Main Street illustrated this.
In that fire, a space heater ignited surrounding materials (including curtains) after cutting itself on automatically when temperatures dropped. The resulting fire heavily damaged a bedroom and caused heat and smoke damage throughout the rest of the home.
The primary problem with space heater use is that “people are not following the manufacturer’s instructions for proper use,” McMullen said.
“We often see space heaters being placed too close to furniture, curtains or other combustible materials,” McMullen said. “We want to remind residents to stay vigilant with fire safety and to be sure that any heating devices are used properly.”
In previous cold spells, some residents have used stove top ranges or open ovens to heat their homes, which is extremely dangerous, McMullen said. If left running for several hours unattended, electrical problems can result, sparking a fire, he added.
“Whatever they do, people should not use their stove or oven as means of heating their home. The fire risk is too great,” McMullen said.
Space heaters can safely warm a home if used properly, he said.
Most manufacturers recommend a space heater — whether it’s electric, natural gas or kerosene — be placed on a hard, non-carpeted surface a minimum of three feet away from combustible materials such as curtains, clothing or furniture, McMullen said. Space heaters specifically designated for outdoor use should not be used indoors, he added.
Fire codes also require the placement of space heaters at least three feet from combustible materials, McCurdy said.
“What’s very important is that people don’t leave the house with the heater still running. Electric heaters, in particular, have the potential to overheat, and if the cord gets hot, can overload an electrical outlet, causing a fire,” McCurdy said.
Colder weather also means many families might use their fireplaces. But fireplaces can result in a residential fire if they are not cleaned and chimneys are not cleaned of potential debris and residue from previous use, McMullen said.
“In the warmer seasons, we often see bird’s nests and other debris accumulate in chimneys in addition to the smut and residue from previous use of the fireplace, both of which can ignite into a chimney fire that can quickly spread into an attic or roof,” McMullen said.
Fire burning in a chimney can also cause the mortar to crack, allowing heat to escape into attic spaces and running the risk of the chimney’s collapse, McMullen said. Both can result in devastating house fires, he said. “We’ve seen it happen here before,” McMullen said.
Residents are also urged to regularly check and replace any smoke detector batteries in their homes as needed, McCurdy said.
“As people begin to use fireplaces and space heaters to keep warm, it’s always a good idea to check smoke detectors,” McCurdy said.
The U.S. Fire Administration website, http://www.usfa.fema.gov, also offers general winter fire safety tips. Brochures from both agencies are available at the Fire Department’s administrative offices at Fire Station No. 1 on Lampkin Street.

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