Published on January 1, 2011.

Perspectives

Home Fires
Glenn Gaines, U.S. Fire Administration acting administratior, on the NFPA/USFA winter fire safety program

NFPA Journal®, January/February 2011

NFPA and the United StateS Fire Administration (USFA) are working together on a new fire safety program called “Put a Freeze on Winter Fires,” designed to remind people that home fires are more prevalent in winter than during any other season. This is due, in part, to an increase in cooking and heating fires. Also contributing to the increased risk are holiday decorations and winter storms that can interrupt electrical service and cause people to turn to alternative heating sources. For more information on the NFPA/USFA program, visit nfpa.org/winter.

NFPA Journal recently spoke to Glenn A. Gaines, the USFA’s acting fire administrator, about the dangers of winter fires.

According to your statistics, cooking fires are the leading cause of winter residential building fires. What can be done to prevent them?
Actually, the causes of all types of fires are magnified every winter, particularly during the holidays when we tend to have more people in our homes. We still do the same things, but we do more of them. And increased activity in the house increases the chances that a fire will start. In terms of fire, the most dangerous three months every year are December, January, and February.

That said, cooking fires cause a large portion of fire injuries and deaths every year in both residential and non-residential structures. Although some of these fires occur in ovens, most start on the stove. So when you’re using a stove, there are a couple rules to follow. First, never leave the room when the stove is on. We also recommend that you not heat a pan on high. If you have a fire that spreads beyond the pan on the stove, leave the room, close the door, dial 911, get everyone out of the house, and meet at a designated point to wait for the fire department. 
 
What about smoke alarms in or near kitchens? People often disable them because they can be activated by cooking. 
A large percentage of fire deaths and injuries occur in homes in which the smoke alarms have been deactivated. You should never disable a smoke alarm. If your smoke alarm is too close to the kitchen and goes off when you’re cooking, you should probably move it, but don’t disable it. We also suggest that you buy smoke alarms that have a pause button and that you clean your smoke alarms routinely. And make sure you always use your exhaust fan when you’re cooking — that will reduce the number of alarms caused by smoke or vapors given off by the food being cooked.

What are the dangers associated with holiday decorations?
The first thing everyone should know is that Christmas trees are generally cut in the first, second, or third weeks of December. Some are cut as early as the last week of November. So waiting to buy a live tree is not a good idea. It’s best to purchase one early and get it into water. Ensure that the base of the tree is sticky to the touch, then saw a few inches off and put it in water. Make sure the needles aren’t coming off. That’s also a great test as the weeks pass: pull lightly on a branch, and if you see the needles starting to separate, it’s time to get the tree out. It’s also important to keep Christmas trees away from air vents, because vents tend to speed the tree’s drying process. And don’t block any exits with the tree.

If you use electric lights, make sure they’re UL- or FM-listed and that the wiring isn’t dry or cracked. And don’t overload your home’s circuits. Tripping circuit breakers are a message to you. Resetting them time and time again is the wrong thing to do. Instead, reduce the number of lights on the circuit. Try to plug the lights directly into the wall, not an extension cord. If you do use an extension cord, make sure it’s twice as big as the wire going into it.

What about fireplaces? 
I encourage people to have the proper screens in place and to have a professional check the fireplace to make sure the flue is clean. And don’t burn wrapping paper, especially in zero-clearance fireplaces — they’re not designed to handle that kind of rapid heat buildup, and it could cause a chimney fire that could spread into the house.

The rules that apply to fireplaces also apply to wood stoves. Wood stoves produce a lot of smoke, and smoke causes soot and creosote to build up in the chimney. Anyone using a wood stove should have the flue checked every year. 

How about candles?
Candles start many fires in homes every year, particularly when they’re left unattended or used close to combustibles, such as bedding and drapery. We recommend that you don’t use candles at all because of their potential danger. There are some great alternatives on the market that are difficult to tell from real candles.

If you do use candles, make sure they’re on a solid foundation and are at least 3 feet (0.9 meters) from combustible materials. If you leave the room, extinguish the candle first. We also encourage adult supervision when candles are used by kids.

What should people know about heating fires?
The 3-foot (0.9-meter) rule also applies to heaters. Typically, heating fires are the result of combustibles placed too close to the heater. Don’t hang wet gloves or coats over heating vents, which can restrict the air flow. We’ve had reports of fires that started when gloves and such were laid over fireplace screens or on top of a furnace.

We recommend that people not use space heaters — they’re dangerous. If you must use them, maintain the 3-foot (0.9-meter) distance from combustibles and turn them off when you leave the room. And before you bring one home, make sure it’s UL-listed.

What should we know about carbon monoxide hazards?
The first rule of heating devices, including water heaters, is to use them carefully. Make sure that your furnace is inspected every year by a professional and that the vents are in good condition and free of debris and snow or ice. Never use a charcoal burner or grill in the house. Charcoal emits a huge quantity of carbon monoxide that can easily permeate a house. Charcoal burners are designed strictly for outdoor use. Never warm your car up in the garage. Pull it out of the garage and make sure it’s locked so that children can’t get in and accidentally put the vehicle in motion.

You should also have a carbon monoxide detector on every floor and change the batteries at least once a year. I suggest that people buy a detector that has a test button and is labeled by a recognized testing laboratory. And keep gas dryer vents clear of snow to prevent a carbon monoxide buildup in the house.

What are the general symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning? 
The symptoms are flu-like: headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, flushing of the face or head. If you suspect you’re being poisoned by carbon monoxide, get outside immediately, dial 911, and get the proper officials there to determine if carbon monoxide is in fact the cause. 

What impact do winter snow and rain storms have on fire safety?
Snow, ice, wind, and rain may bring down wires, including electrical wires. Stay away from them and report them to the proper officials. Heating systems can be under extreme pressure during storms, so have them checked during the fall to make sure they’re in working order.

Another thing to keep in mind is that help can be difficult to get during storms. First responders have the same challenges we all do during a storm in terms of transportation. You need to be self-reliant, ensuring that you have enough food, water, medications, and anything else you need well in advance of a storm so you don’t have to go out.

Occasionally, a major storm is followed by a massive thaw, resulting in plugged drains and water covering roadways or bridges. If you approach a road or bridge covered in water, remember this ditty: turn around, don’t drown. When I was with the fire service, I responded to a number of such incidents, especially during February.

You should also clear snow from around fire hydrants near your home.

What should people know about using portable generators?
Portable generators should be stationed well away from the home, away from air intakes, doors, and other openings, and they should be used the way they’re designed to be used. They should also be inspected annually and serviced routinely.

Once the fuel tank is empty, the generator needs to cool down. Do not refill the fuel tank while it’s hot, especially with gasoline. Gasoline is extremely flammable, and a minute amount spilled on a hot device can start a major fire.

What are the major causes of electrical fires, and what safety precautions can we take?
The best advice we can offer is to use the electrical system as it was designed to be used. When you use multiple plugs or long extension cords, you’re putting yourself in danger. Extension cords are okay for temporary use, but they are not a permanent answer to a long-term need. They put additional stress on the electrical system and may start a fire without notice. If you do have long-term needs, get a licensed electrician to add additional service.

If your home’s been damaged by a flood or a storm and your electrical circuits have been immersed in water for a period of time, we recommend that you move out of the house and bring in a licensed electrician to handle the problem. I would not move back in until the electrician says you can. 


This interview was condensed and edited by NFPA Journal.