Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of fire safety-themed stories being published this weekend. Other installments are planned for Friday and Saturday
By BRIAN HAWKINS
The forecast return of cooler temperatures over the next few days has Starkville Fire Department officials 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 Saturday, while nighttime low temperatures are predicted to drop into mid-20s and lower 30s tonight and Saturday night.
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.
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. “In the last six years, we’ve seen at least two houses totally destroyed by fires caused from space heaters.”
Since the area has not seen a sustained period of cooler temperatures, firefighters have seen few fires caused by improper heating apparatus use, McMullen said.
“Most of the fires we’ve seen have been cooking fires from grease left too long on the stove,” McMullen said.
However, some residents have used stovetop 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
Here are some key safety tips as provided by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.:
Space heater safety
• Place the heater on a level, hard and nonflammable surface (such as ceramic tile floor), not on rugs or carpets or near bedding or drapes. Keep the heater at least three feet from bedding, drapes, furniture and other flammable materials. Keep children and pets away from space heaters.
• To prevent the risk of fire, NEVER leave a space heater on when you go to sleep or place a space heater close to any sleeping person. Turn the space heater off if you leave the area.
• Use a space heater that has been tested to the latest safety standards and certified by a nationally-recognized testing laboratory. These heaters will have the most up-to-date safety features; older space heaters may not meet the newer safety standards. An unvented gas space heater that meets current safety standards will shut off if oxygen levels fall too low.
• Make sure your heater is correctly rated for your home. An oversized heater could deplete the available oxygen, causing excess carbon monoxide to be produced. Keep a window in the room open at least one inch and keep doors open to the rest of the house to ensure proper ventilation. This helps prevent pollutant buildup and promotes proper combustion.
• Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to provide sufficient combustion air to prevent carbon monoxide production.
• Have gas and kerosene space heaters inspected annually to ensure proper operation.
• Do not use a kitchen range or oven to heat your house because it could overheat or generate excessive carbon monoxide.
• Be aware that manufactured homes require specially-designed heating equipment.
• Do not use unvented gas space heaters where prohibited by local codes.
• Have a smoke alarm with fresh batteries on each level of the house, inside every bedroom, and outside the bedrooms in each sleeping area. In addition, have a carbon monoxide alarm outside the bedrooms in each separate sleeping area.
• Have flues and chimneys inspected before each heating season for leakage and blockage by creosote or debris
• Open the fireplace damper before lighting the fire and keep it open until the ashes are cool. Never close the damper or go to bed if the ashes are still warm.
An open damper may help prevent build-up of poisonous gases inside the home.
• Never use gasoline, charcoal lighter or other fuel to light or relight a fire because the vapors can explode. Never keep flammable fuels or materials near a fire. Never store flammable liquids in your home.
• Never use charcoal in a fireplace because of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
• Keep a screen or glass enclosure around a fireplace to prevent sparks or embers from igniting flammable materials.