MUSCATINE, Iowa – During the New Year’s weekend a trailer fire in Muscatine resulted in fire damage to one room and smoke damage throughout the trailer. The resident was lucky. The quick response of the Muscatine Fire Department prevented a much bigger tragedy.
The investigation into the fire determined the initial cause was a heating device left too close to combustibles. The investigation also found several other space heaters plugged into extension cords, placed in close proximity to combustibles, and smoke detectors present but the batteries taken out.
“This fire brings up safety topics of smoke alarm maintenance, use of extension cords, and the use and spacing of space heaters,” Mike Hartman, Muscatine Fire Department Assistant Chief and Fire Marshal, said.
Heating, cooking, decorations, and candles all contribute to an increased risk of fire during the winter months. The National Fire Protection Association says that it is important to pay careful attention to the proper use and maintenance of heating equipment, which are one of the major causes of residential fires.
The primary culprits in home heating fires are open-flame space heaters, portable electric heaters, and wood-burning fireplaces and stoves. Improperly installed or maintained central heating equipment can also be a cause of fire in the home, although not as often.
Heating is the second leading cause of residential fires, deaths, and injuries in the United States with December, January, and February the peak months. Space heaters are the cause in two out of every five home fires.
Hartman said fire code does allow space heaters but they are required to be plugged directly into the outlet.
“Space heaters pull a lot of power and can overheat extension cords and multi-plug adapters,” Hartman said. “The heaters need to be properly listed (kind of a given anymore), and spaced at least three feet from combustible materials.”
Carbon monoxide (CO) is often called the invisible killer. This odorless, colorless gas is created when fuels such as gasoline, wood, coal, propane, etc. do not burn completely. In the home, heating and cooking equipment that burn fuel are potential sources of CO. Carbon monoxide incidents are more common during the winter months, and in residential properties.
The Muscatine Fire Department suggests a few simple precautions to help reduce the risk of a home heating tragedy, either by fire or deadly carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning:
- Open-flame space heaters: Maintain at least three feet of clearance from the front and sides of the heater to any combustible materials, such as curtains, drapes, furniture, and bedding. Make certain the heater burns with a clean blue flame across the entire burner. If it does not, a plumber or heating expert should clean the burner and adjust the flame. Avoid the use of any type of unvented fuel burning heating device, and if absolutely necessary use only if the space is equipped with both smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
- Portable electric heaters: Should always to be placed on the floor, not in a chair or on other objects. The portable electric heater should have an automatic shut-off device to turn it off if tipped over. Its electrical cord should not be in an area where it will get walked on repeatedly, without being protected by a cord protector, mat, or rug.
- Fireplaces and wood-burning stoves: Maintain at least three feet of clearance from the front and sides of the fireplace or wood-burning stove to any combustible materials (see open-flame space heaters above). The flue or chimney should be checked periodically (optimally once a year) for creosote buildup, cracked, or broken flue tiles, loose mortar joints, and corroded or leaking flue pipes. The flue or chimney should be checked before use to be certain it isn’t blocked. These are attractive locations for birds and squirrels to build nests.
- Fresh air: Be sure to allow some fresh air into the area where the stove or fireplace is in use. A lack of fresh air can cause incomplete combustion and/or interfere with the unit’s ability to draft properly, either of which can cause carbon monoxide to accumulate in the home.
- Type of wood: The type of wood burned in a fireplace or free standing woodstove is important. Your best bet is to use hardwood, such as oak, maple, beech, or ash. It should be properly dried or seasoned for about one year. We also advise removing ashes regularly for maximum air flow. Disposal of ashes should be in a non-combustible container such as a metal bucket. Hot ashes or coals can smolder for days, and if placed in a cardboard box, or plastic garbage container the results can be disastrous.
- Avoid burning trash: Homeowners should avoid burning items such as trash or gift wrapping paper.
- Fireplace screen: Also, when leaving a room while a fire is burning, a fireplace screen or glass door should be closed to protect the room from sudden sprays of sparks.
SMOKE & CARBON MONOXIDE DETECTORS
Smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are two essential tools every resident needs to protect their families and their homes. Working smoke alarms provide an early warning of a fire and allows residents to exit the home quickly and safely according to the National Fire Prevention Association. Carbon monoxide detectors are also a life saving device, notifying residents of the odorless gas that could be fatal.
Residents should check the batteries in each device located in the home at least twice a year and replace each device after 10 years (always write the date of installation on the device).
EXTENSION CORDS & POWER STRIPS
Most extension cords and power strips are meant to handle lower amounts of current and cannot handle the high currents space heaters draw. Extension cords and power strips are also a tripping hazard in the home and that could be harmful to a person and also cause the space heater to fall over.
Space heaters need to be plugged directly into the wall as heating elements can reach 500-600 degrees Fahrenheit. You should also keep an eye on them when it is in use.
“There is a common theme in space heater fires,” Hartman said. “They were left unattended.”
Other common safety tips:
- Have a fire extinguisher on hand: Having fire extinguishers – and knowing how to use them – is an important part of maintaining a safe home for you and your family. When seconds count, having a fire extinguisher nearby is crucial for rapid response. Fire extinguishers should be stored where they are easily reachable and in key rooms where there is a higher risk for fires such as the kitchen and garage.
- Practice candle safety: When burning candles for festive lighting, keep them at least a foot from anything flammable, never leave them unattended and place them out of reach from children. Make it a routine to check that all flames are extinguished before you go to bed or leave the room.
- Play it safe in the kitchen: Cooking is the leading cause of home fires and home injuries, so it’s important to know what you can do to help keep your friends and family safe while entertaining during the winter season. The primary cause of fires in the kitchen is unattended stovetops and ovens. If you are simmering, baking or roasting food, check it regularly, remain in the kitchen and use a timer for reminders. When cooking for longer periods of time, don’t forget to use the exhaust fan or vent above your stove to help prevent carbon monoxide (CO) from collecting inside your home.
Winter Fire Safety video