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News Cold brings sharp increase in home fires

Avoid the most common heating hazards

With Western North Carolina experiencing extreme temperatures and weather conditions for the second year in a row, many in the region are turning to portable space heaters and wood — heat sources that bring particular hazards — as supplemental or even primary sources of home heating.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, more than half of home heating fires happen in the months of December, January and February. In 2008, an estimated 66,100 home structure fires were reported, causing 480 deaths, 1,660 injuries, and approximately $1.1 billion in property damage.

Macon County Emergency Services Director Warren Cabe says the three main causes of structure fires related to home heating are misuse of portable heating units, the improper disposal of ashes and chimney fires. But hazards related to home heating can be reduced by taking some simple precautions.

First, Cabe advises all residents should have chimneys cleaned and inspected annually. “We have noticed an increase in chimney fires recently,” Cabe said. He noted that many such fires occur after sudden cold snaps. In addition to annual cleaning and inspection, residents should do monthly visual checks to make sure chimneys and smokestacks remain clear and unobstructed.

Farrell Jamison, Chief Fire Inspector for Macon County, notes that part of the danger from chimney fires comes from the fact that over time the wood around a chimney becomes highly flammable and much like charcoal in a chemical process known as pyrolysis. “Where normal wood with 15 percent moisture content would take more than 500 degrees to set on fire, wood that’s been heated up over the years can actually ignite at about 250 degrees,” Jamison explained.

Another perennial problem is fires started by the improper disposal of ashes. “Every year we have at least one fire from somebody who has improperly disposed of ashes,” Cabe noted.

This season at least one structural fire was the result of ashes placed in a plastic container that was then set on the porch of the home. Ashes should be placed in a non-combustible container away from the home, not in a plastic container and not on balconies or decks around the house. “Folks would be surprised at the amount of heat that can be generated from those ashes even days later,” Cabe cautioned.

CHIMNEY FIRES have been on the increase with the recent extreme drops in temperature. On Monday, firefighters responded to a fire at a home on Bradley Creek Road in Cowee which had started as a chimney fire. No one was at the home at the time the fire broke out, and thanks to the quick call by neighbors, the house was saved from major damage.Fires related to electrical heating appliances are also a regular cause of structural fires in the county. Already this season, a number of fires involved electric heaters, reports Jamison. Misuse of such appliances and short circuiting are the primary causes of such fires. Cabe added that there is nothing wrong with using such equipment as long as it is used in the manner in which it was intended, with nothing combustible placed on, above or within three feet of the appliance.

“They call them space heaters for a reason: they need space around them to separate them from combustible materials in the room,” Cabe said.

A related problem comes from people plugging electric heaters into outlets in addition to other appliances and overloading the capacity of the outlets. This is particularly the case in older homes. “In old houses, the outlets can usually carry the load of one appliance, but if you run two or three appliances to it, then you run into the problem of trying to pull too much power,” Jamison explained. “The wires heat up and fail.” Jamison advises that residents be very cautious about overloading electric outlets.

Be prepared

In addition to these precautions, Cabe urges residents and visitors to take steps to be prepared in case a fire does break out in your home. Most importantly, homeowners should to make sure they have working smoke detectors. Equally important is for families to have an emergency plan.

“Even if we do have smoke detectors, we often forget to make sure our family knows what to do if they go off,” Cabe explained. “If they go off, you need to have a plan in place, particularly if you have children, of what we’re going to do and where we’re going to meet.”

An issue particularly relevant to visitors and seasonal residents is being prepared to confirm your address in case of a fire emergency. Cabe notes that seconds can make a big difference when firefighters are responding to a call, and when a caller is unable to confirm their address to 9-1-1 dispatchers, it can waste valuable time.

Patrick Jenkins, insurance agent for Farm Bureau Insurance, says there are several things to think about prior to a fire claim. He urges homeowners to take steps to ease the process of such claims in the event that the worst happens and the home is destroyed.

Documenting and keeping appraisals of valuables in a secure place outside of the home such as a bank safety deposit box is one such step. Jewelry, guns, and other collectible items should be listed and itemized and kept along with documentation of the value of such items.

Jenkins also suggests using video to document possessions. Making a video of each room, including the contents of drawers and closets creates a valuable document which insurance adjusters can use to determine more precisely the value of items destroyed in a fire. “Ultimately that would really help you during a claim,” said Jenkins of the video technique. “An adjuster doesn’t know what you have in your home and the burden is left on the homeowner to provide information as to what was there.” The disks or video tapes should also be kept in a secure location outside of the home.

Check Your Hotspots — A Fact Sheet on Rural Fire Safety and Prevention

Each year fire claims the lives of 3,500 Americans, injures 20,000, and causes billions of dollars worth of damage. People living in rural areas are more than twice as likely to die in a fire than those living in mid-sized cities or suburban areas. The misuse of wood stoves, portable space heaters and kerosene heaters are especially common risks in rural areas.

The United States Fire Administration (USFA) believes rural fire problems can be reduced by teaching people to recognize the hazards. By following some of the outlined precautionary steps, individuals can greatly reduce their chances of becoming a fire casualty.

Wood Stoves

Wood stoves cause over 4,000 residential fires every year. Carefully follow the manufacturer’s installation and maintenance instructions. Look for solid construction, such as plate steel or cast iron metal. Check for cracks and inspect legs, hinges and door seals for smooth joints and seams. Use only seasoned wood for fuel, not green wood, artificial logs, or trash. Inspect and clean your pipes and chimneys annually and check monthly for damage or obstructions. Be sure to keep combustible objects at least three feet away from your wood stove.

Electric Space Heaters

Buy only heaters evaluated by a nationally recognized laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL). Check to make sure it has a thermostat control mechanism, and will switch off automatically if the heater falls over. Heaters are not dryers or tables; don’t dry clothes or store objects on top of your heater. Space heaters need space; keep combustibles at least three feet away from each heater. Always unplug your electric space heater when not in use.

Kerosene Heaters

Buy only heaters evaluated by a nationally recognized laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL), and check with your local fire department on the legality of kerosene heater use in your community. Never fill your heater with gasoline or camp stove fuel; both flare-up easily. Only use crystal clear K-1 kerosene. Never overfill any portable heater. Use the kerosene heater in a well ventilated room.


Fireplaces regularly build up creosote in their chimneys. They need to be cleaned out frequently and chimneys should be inspected for obstructions and cracks to prevent deadly chimney and roof fires. Check to make sure the damper is open before starting any fire. Never burn trash, paper or green wood in your fireplace. These materials cause heavy creosote buildup and are difficult to control. Use a screen heavy enough to stop rolling logs and big enough to cover the entire opening of the fireplace to catch flying sparks. Don't wear loose-fitting clothes near any open flame. Make sure the fire is completely out before leaving the house or going to bed. Store cooled ashes in a tightly sealed metal container outside the home.

Finally, having a working smoke alarm dramatically increases your chances of surviving a fire. And remember to practice a home escape plan frequently with your family.

Source: U.S. Fire Administration (

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