Winter, Christmastime present challenges for home fire safety

By Abby Morris
Star Staff

As temperatures drop and residents begin heating their homes up, fire experts advise people to be on the lookout for danger signs, and to use caution when heating their houses.
   "Any time you introduce electricity or any type of heat into a structure, you're running the risk of a fire," said Elizabethton Fire Department Chief Mike Shouse.
   Many residents of Carter County rely on methods other than electric heat to keep their homes warm during the cold weather months. Some use wood burning stoves while others may use kerosene heaters, oil burners, propane heaters or natural gas stoves. Each of these methods of heating presents its own challenges for safety.
   According to Shouse, the most important thing to remember in keeping a home safely heated is to make sure that a safe distance is maintained between the heater and anything that could catch fire. "A lot of the problems we have is just with them being set too close to combustibles or the wall," he said. He added that if a heater is set too close to the wall, it causes the wood to dry out and makes it easier for the wood to catch fire.
   Wood burning stoves can present their own issues when it comes to home safety. "Nine times out of 10, fires from wood stoves happen because they were improperly installed or were not well maintained," Shouse said. "If they are installed properly and maintained, they're pretty safe."
   Shouse advised that individuals using wood stoves have their chimneys inspected at least once a year and cleaned at least twice a year. "We recommend that people have it done by professionals because they have all the proper equipment to do it," he said.
   If a chimney is not cleaned regularly, it can lead to creosote build up in the chimney, which can lead to a fire.
   "A large majority of our chimney fires start happening around February," Shouse said. He said that many people clean their chimney at the start of winter but after months of heating their homes, the creosote has built back up.
   "It's gotten blocked and the fire is doing what the owner should have done which is clear the chimney," Shouse said. "If you've got a properly constructed and installed chimney, it can actually handle the chimney fire."
   According to Elizabethton Fire Marshal Barry Carrier, having the right kind of chimney pipe and having it installed correctly is important. "The minimum requirement for a stove pipe where it penetrates the wall is doubled walled pipe with a minimum one inch air gap separation," Carrier said, adding that a chimney should be at least three feet above the roof line of the house.
   Fireplaces can present similar difficulties for home owners. "Fireplaces are always dangerous," Shouse said. "We recommend a good seasoned wood like oak or locust -- something that won't crackle much. A lot of people find that soothing, but every time it crackles, you've got the chance of it kicking an ember out." Shouse added that glass doors or a screen across the front of the fireplace is recommended to prevent embers from flying out.
   Heaters that use kerosene, oil, propane or natural gas as a power source can pose a deadly risk to those use them to heat their homes. When those fuels are burned, carbon monoxide is released into the air.
   "It can make people sick or even lead to death," Shouse said. "These carbon monoxide detectors really need to be in these homes."
   Christmastime presents its own challenges for home fire safety. Between the decorations and the tree, families need to be extra cautious during the season.
   "People need to make sure if they are using 'real' trees they need to keep them properly watered," Shouse said. "Certain trees dry out quicker than others." When the trees dry out, it makes them not only easier to catch fire, but it also makes them burn quicker.
   Carrier added that for those who use artificial trees, those trees need to be listed as flame resistant. He suggested looking for products that are "UL listed." Products which are UL listed have been tested by the Underwriters Laboratory -- an independent research firm -- and are approved as safe. "It's a good label to look for," Shouse said.
   When decorating a home or Christmas tree, Shouse and Carrier recommend that people make sure the lights are designated as for indoor or outdoor use, make sure that if using an extension cord it has been approved for the amount of current it will be used for and to inspect the lights for damaged bulbs or cords. "And never use candles on a Christmas tree," Shouse said. Shouse also advised to never leave candles burning or Christmas lights on when leaving the home.
   In addition to these season specific recommendations, normal guidelines for safety still apply. Shouse recommended to make sure the batteries in the smoke alarm work and that there is at least one alarm on each floor of the home. He also advised to make sure that everyone in the home knows at least two ways out of every room and that the family has a designated meeting spot outside of the home where everybody is to gather in the event of a fire. "And once you're out, stay out," Shouse said.