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Winter can be deadly because of fires

The holidays may be, as the song goes, the most wonderful time of the year but they can also be one of the most dangerous times of the year, especially when it comes to fires.

Nationally, more than 905 people die in winter home fires each year and more than $2 billion in property loss occurs from winter home fires, according to John Wells, Chief of the Paris Volunteer Fire Department. Although Paris hasn’t experienced a major winter fire in a couple of years, Wells said the safest thing to do is practice some prevention and stop fires before they start.

So, he recently offered some preventive tips in the areas where fires most often happen in the winter months — home heating, holiday cooking and holiday decorations.

Home heating

A wood burning fireplace can provide heat but it can also cause problems, Wells said.

“We haven’t had any problems this year, but we’ve had problems with chimney fires in the past,” he said.

The leading factor contributing to home heating fires (33 percent) was failure to clean, principally creosote, from chimneys, Wells said.

“Chimney fires are usually caused by burning unseasoned wood, pine or because the chimney hasn’t been cleaned,” Wells said. “The worse thing to do with a chimney fire is put water on it.”

Wells said it is best to have a chimney or wood stove inspected annually by a certified specialist. The area around the hearth should also be kept free of debris, decorations and flammable materials. Never leave a fire unattended, he said.

Space heaters, whether portable or stationary, account for more than one-third of home heating fires and four out of five home heating fire deaths, Wells said.

“We haven’t had a space heater fire in some time, but they are a major cause of fire deaths in the winter,” Wells said.

Well advised keeping space heaters at least three feet from anything that may burn. Never leave the heater on when you leave or go to sleep, Wells said. Children and pets should be kept away from space heaters.

Holiday cooking

Cooking is the leading cause of all winter home fires, Wells said.

“We actually have more kitchen fires in the winter than in all the other areas put together,” Wells said. “Kitchen fires are usually caused because you’re cooking and you get distracted — the phone rings, someone comes to the door.”

Wells suggested that you keep cooking areas clear of combustibles, wear short or tight-fitting sleeves when cooking and keep the handles of pots turned inward so they don’t hang over the surface of the stove.

“Grease fires are also a problem,” Wells said. “With them, you have to smother the fire.”

If grease catches fire, slide a lid over the pan and smother the flames, then turn off the burner.

If an appliance smokes or has an unusual smell, unplug it immediately and have it replaced. Replace frayed or cracked electrical cords and don’t overload extension cords. Don’t run extension cords under rugs.

Holiday decorating

Nearly everyone decorates their home for the holidays. But those decorations, especially candles, can be a fire danger, Wells said.

December is the peak time of year for home candle fires, Wells said. In December, 13 percent of home candle fires begin with decorations, compared to four percent the rest of the year. One-half of home candle fires take place between midnight and 6 a.m.

One of every three Christmas tree fires are caused by electrical problems, Wells said. Although not especially common, Christmas tree fires are usually more serious. On average, one out of every 40 home Christmas tree fires results in a death compared to an average of one death in 142 home structure fires.

More than half of all candle fires take place when something that could burn, such as furniture, mattresses, bedding, curtains, or decorations, is too close to the candle. The simplest thing is to frequently check candles and blow them out if leaving the house or going to bed.

As for Christmas tree fires, Wells said be certain to water the tree if you have a live tree and be sure to check electrical cords and lights before putting them on the tree. You should also keep a live tree away from a heating source, Well said.

“We haven’t had a Christmas tree fire in some time, but that can be a cause of fire,” Wells said. “You should also carefully check lights. Look for any frayed wires and if you find one, replace the lights.

Wells also said that smoke and carbon monoxide detectors can be life savers in the event of a fire.

“Smoke detectors are one of your greatest defenses against fire,” he said. “Batteries should be replaced once a year and they should be checked once a month.”

Wells also suggested that families have and practice an escape plan, stay low to the ground if you smell smoke, and “in a fire, you’re only concern should be you and other members of your family. Everyone should get out of the house as soon as you can. Let the firemen fight the fire. That’s what we’re trained to do.”

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