Winter Home Fire Safety

During the winter, we are all trying to stay warm and decorate for the holidays. The pace becomes ever more hectic while we complete our holiday shopping and hurriedly put up our favorite holiday decorations. All the while, we expect electrical and heating systems to work without a hitch, and without emitting any carbon monoxide or fires. There are some basic steps you can take to help ensure your home is free from fires this winter. 

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Begin by taking care of your equipment. Have a licensed heating and air conditioning service company complete a full inspection and service of the heating systems where you live. If you’re in an apartment building, ask the building manager or landlord if an inspection is scheduled (even though it’s someone else’s property, you’re the one who will get cold if it fails some dark night. If you own a space heater, now is the time to service it as well. If a space heater is leaking exhaust or it won’t shut off automatically, then it is just as deadly as a malfunctioning furnace. Don’t wait until your furnace goes out to check the space heater! This is also the time to have a certified chimney sweep clean and inspect your fireplace and chimney. Always use a fireplace screen, and if children are around, be sure to use a child-guard screen. Remove ashes from the fireplace or indoor stove in a covered, metal container and deposit them in a non-combustible area at least three feet from anything that is combustible. Burn only seasoned, dry wood in either so there isn’t a pitch or sap buildup in the chimney (a big cause of chimney fires).  

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Likewise, be sure you have smoke detectors inside each bed room or in the hall next to the bedroom entrance. These should be tested monthly and batteries replaced twice each year (changing them when the time changes are an easy way to do that). The smoke detectors themselves should be replaced every 10 years. In case you think this is an unnecessary drill, half of the 150 people lost to home fires would have been saved if smoke detectors had been present. Equally important are carbon monoxide detectors. Any time there is a fuel being burned (e.g., natural gas, wood, coal), some carbon monoxide (also known as CO) is part of the exhaust product. CO can kill within a few hours and is even more deadly because it is odorless and invisible. The CO detector should also be tested monthly and should have batteries replaced twice a year when you change the batteries in the smoke detectors.

If you use a portable heater, be sure it is well ventilated so there is no CO buildup. Place it so that it is at least three feet from any combustible item. Only purchase Underwriters‘ Laboratories (UL) listed appliances. If they become damaged, they should be repaired or replaced, including frayed electrical cords. Never use electrical extension cords with electrical space heaters. Always have an adult present when space heaters are used where children might be present. Always turn a space heater off whenever you are leaving or about to sleep. If you choose to use a portable generator, always situate it outside and a good distance from your home, garage or out-building. It will produce heat and CO, so distance is important (it should be placed away from building vents as well because vents and air intakes will bring that CO into the home if it is close). If you choose to connect a portable generator to your home’s electrical system, be sure to purchase a machine that is designed for this and arrange for a licensed electrician to install it.

No discussion of winter and holiday fire prevention would be complete without saying something about candles. If you can avoid lighting candles, by all means do so! Using them on trees and around combustibles (i.e., anything that burns) is only asking for trouble! If you use candles in a holiday celebration, keep them away from decorations, live greens and wrapping paper or anything else that will burn. Use them only with adult supervision. Matches and lighters should be kept out of reach of children. Place candles in a sturdy, non-combustible candle holder so that the candle doesn’t tip over. Never leave candles burning when you leave or go to bed.

Holiday fire prevention is especially important. For more information on that topic, please refer to our individual articles on those topics.

Every home should have a UL listed fire extinguisher, and adults and older children should know how to use it in the event of fire. It’s pretty simple really: Simply pull the pin, aim the nozzle at the base of the fire and pull the trigger in bursts (you can empty most units in less than a minute with a constant pull on the trigger) while sweeping the unit from side to side across the fire.

Finally, develop a fire escape plan for your family. Make it as simple as possible, and rehearse it with all family members. Be sure to include everyone in your plan. Babies, small children, the disabled and the elderly may not be able to exit on their own.

So, making sure your home is properly outfitted and the equipment is maintained will be a good first step. Use special care with candles. Know how to use your fire extinguisher and practice your evacuation plan. Pay special attention to holiday fire safety. There you are; have fun this winter.