Fire Safety for the Winter Holidays

Every holiday season, fires injure approximately 1,650 people in this country and cost Americans over $990 billion in damages. This is also the time of year when dropping temperatures and high heating costs cause Americans all over the country to turn to alternative heating sources – wood burning stoves, electrical space heaters and kerosene heaters are all common and reasonable alternatives to central heating, but all present their own particular fire dangers.

It would be easy to write thousands of words devoted solely to fire safety advice, and many people have done so. In a previous post, I linked to firesafety.gov’s holiday safety page, but they offer a variety of resources for fireproofing year round and for all sorts of homes and situations.

Still, it seems timely and appropriate considering the recent fires and the unique dangers presented by both the season, to take the opportunity to offer some tips.

Wood Stoves: Wood stoves are the source of thousands of house fires every year. Always make sure that the manufacturer’s instructions are followed carefully when wood stoves are installed, and each year inspect that the structure is still sound. Check for cracks and make sure the seams, hinges and legs are smooth and intact. Clean pipes and chimneys every year, and check for problems or obstructions every month.

Electric & Kerosene Heaters: In the case of both electrical and kerosene heaters, look for units with a UL approval symbol attached. This means that they have been approved by Underwriter's Laboratories, a national regulatory body. In the case of Kerosene heaters, check the legality of using them in your area. Always use Kerosene heaters in a well ventilated area and use only clear K-1 kerosene.

Fire Places: Clean your fire place’s chimney frequently to avoid creosote build up. Burn only seasoned wood, not trash, green wood, or other inappropriate fuel. Always make sure the damper is open before starting a fire. Use a screen to catch flying sparks, and prevent logs from rolling away – it should large enough and sturdy enough to cover the entire opening.

With all these heating methods, keep flammable items away from them, and be aware that they are not driers, nor tables. Do not attempt to use them as such. Keep the area around them clear.

And remember this year, when disposing of your holiday tree, not to be tempted to burn it. The dry branches and needles should not go in fire places or wood burning stoves. Your tree should be fresh, green and resilient when you pick it out, and keep its stand filled with water. When your tree becomes dry, discard it promptly, and either taking it to a community recycling center, or hauling it away by a curb-side pick up. You should not attempt to keep a real tree for more than two weeks.

And, as always, have working smoke alarms. There should be one on every level of your home, kept clean and equipped with fresh batteries. Test them monthly to ensure that they are in working order. Know when, who and how to call for help in the event that your precautions fail and a fire does breakout, and make sure you and everyone in your household is aware of the escape plan.