Stay Warm This Winter… Safely
By Jimmy Parks, MS, RN
With icy gloves she struggled to turn the frozen doorknob of the cabin. She stomped the snow from her boots and stepped inside. The wind blew some of winter in with her before she could close the door. Her ears and nose were stinging from cold as she hung her heavy coat and iced hat on the rack.
She turned the portable heater on to warm the room until the fire was going in the wood-burning stove. She started the coffee in the kitchen and, by the time the aroma filled the room, the small cabin den was almost snug. She slipped on her long, flannel pajamas and fuzzy house shoes, then settled on the plush couch in front of the stove. A piece of dark chocolate and a tall mug of coffee made her novel seem richer, her cabin seem cozier.
Nice, but it’s hard to feel cozy if you don’t feel safe. Hot food and drinks, stoves, and fireplaces are all part of taking the sting out of the winter cold. They are good things! But don’t forget that with them come some additional risks.
FIRE DEATHS RISE WHEN TEMPERATURES DIP
if you think safe and warm just naturally go together, think again. According to the united States Fire Administration (uSFA), half of all home fire deaths occur between the first day of November and the last day of February. The biggest reason for that is the cold weather or, more exactly, the way that people try to keep warm in the cold weather. According to the uSFA, heating-related fires are the leading cause of fire deaths in the winter. Fixed local heating units are the most likely type of equipment to be involved in heating fires followed by, in order, central heating units, chimneys, water heaters, indoor fireplaces, and portable heating units. (“Fixed local heating units” is a fire service administrator term for heat sources, such as woodburning stoves and kerosene heaters that stay in one place, but it does not include fireplaces and central heaters.)
TIPS FOR HEATING SAFELY
Because mechanical failure or improper maintenance was the most likely reason that any heating device was involved in a house fire, it is very important that you have your heat source professionally cleaned and inspected before you begin using it for the winter. The same goes for central heating units. They are designed to be and have proven to be quite safe as long as they are installed and used correctly, maintained, and regularly serviced.
The next most likely reason for fires involving heating devices was the placement of “combustibles” too near the heat source. While the word “combustible” sounds like it means “explosives,” it really means anything that can catch fire. So be sure to keep paper, clothing, wood, carpet, hair, etc., at least 3 feet away. (Depending on the type of combustible and heating unit, even 3 feet may not be enough.)
In the case of a central system, your heating unit may actually be housed in a closet-type enclosure in your home. Before you use any additional room inside that space for storage, remember that if combustibles are stored that close to the heating unit, there’s a greater chance for a fire in that area.
Always follow the directions for your particular heating device. remember, only use the kind of fuel that your heater is designed to burn. Never use gasoline in any kind of heater and don’t use flammable liquids to start a fire in a fireplace or wood-burning stove. Some of the worst burns i’ve seen are the result of gasoline being used to start a fire.
Chimneys are another frequent location of heatingrelated fires. Because these fires usually occur when the resin and tar that has built up in a chimney ignites, you can prevent them by having your chimney properly cleaned. Just like your home heating system, a chimney, whether it’s used for a stove or fireplace, should be inspected and cleaned before each winter season.
Fireplaces present additional concerns because, unlike stoves, they usually don’t have a door to provide a barrier between the fire and combustibles in the room. The best fire screens will cover the whole mouth of the fireplace, but even those screens cannot block all the sparks, so it’s a good idea never to leave a fireplace unattended when in use and make sure combustibles are kept at a safe distance.
When you clean out that fireplace or woodstove, always use a metal container to carry ashes away. Never use a paper sack or cardboard box, either of which can be ignited by the tiniest hot coal. remember that, especially in modern wood-burning stoves that are made to retain heat, hot embers can be remain in the ashes even days after the last fire.
Every year, we hear about portable heaters causing deadly fires. if a portable heater is in good condition and used properly, it’s not likely to do so. So the same precautions apply: read the directions, maintain the device as directed, and keep combustibles (including yourself) at least 3 feet away. The real problem with portable heaters is that they are portable. They can easily be placed near combustibles and are often taken into places where we don’t usually have a heater—like a garage, shop, or outbuilding. unfortunately, that’s also where gasoline, paint thinners, and other flammable liquids may be stored. if you want a portable heater in the garage while you work on your kid’s bicycle, make sure there are no flammable liquids in the garage before you start.
Finally, never use a cooking stove to heat your house or a room in your house. using anything to heat your home that’s not designed to do so is very risky. if your electricity or gas has been disconnected because of financial difficulty, call your utility company to see if they have a fuel assistance fund. Such programs can help keep your gas or electricity connected during the coldest months and keep you heating safely.
Besides the fire risk, remember that heaters are common causes of burns too. Children are especially at risk. Stoves and heaters don’t always look hot, so it’s up to adults to keep small children away. most children who are burned by heaters are burned on their hands when they reach out to touch the stove. remember, fire is interesting so you can expect children to be fascinated by the flames, heat, sparks, and smoke. it’s important to teach them about fire as a tool and not something to touch or play with. most importantly, don’t leave children unsupervised around heat sources. remember, children who are wearing snug-fitting, fire-resistant clothing are safer from sparks as well.
HOLIDAYS BRING ADDITIONAL RISK
Christmas trees, candles, cooking, and fireworks all make fires a little more likely during the holiday season. Just as “cozy is cozier” when you’re safe, holidays are happier if they are safe. While you could keep the holidays safer by not having a Christmas tree, candles, hot food, or firework, that’s the grinch method of holiday fire safety. A more cheerful approach is to take some simple precautions:
- Don’t leave food on a stove unattended.
- Never allow young children in the kitchen unsupervised.
- When using candles, make sure they are in sturdy, non-flammable candleholders, never put them near combustibles like decorations or curtains, and never leave a candle unattended.
- Water your Christmas tree every day to keep it from drying out and keep the tree and presents away from heat sources.
- Make sure Christmas lights are in good condition and used as directed.
- Use flashlights, not candles, if the power goes out.
- Leave fireworks to the experts.
Keep in mind that electric blankets and heating pads are, in effect, portable heaters. even though they are designed to be safe, they must be used with caution. unfortunately in the burn center where i work, we have had to treat babies who had been put on a heating pad to sleep. Heating pads are designed to be used only for short periods of time, so never sleep on them. if you think you might fall asleep when using one, set a timer or alarm clock.
Never use electric blankets that are more than 10 years old or that show any signs of wear. if the material is frayed or unraveling, if the cords are cracked, or if there are any scorched spots on the blanket, throw it away and get a new one. Don’t use an electric blanket if it is wet or soiled and never use an electric blanket or heating pad with a hot water bottle.
A lot of the things we’ve talked about in this article require some electricity to work, so keep in mind these precautions:
- For things like heaters and electric blankets, don’t use multi-socket blocks or adapters.
- Make sure the cords are in good condition.
- Don’t run the cords under rugs or mats since damage could go unnoticed.
- If at all possible, avoid using extension cords altogether. if you absolutely have to use them, be sure to use extension cords that are 12 or 14 gauge. These extension cords are noticeably thicker than cheaper, riskier types and they can handle the amount of electricity required for heating equipment.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
These precautions may make staying warm in the winter seem complicated, but it really comes down to three main points:
- Make sure your heat sources are in good condition and clean.
- Only use heating devices as directed.
- Keep things that can catch fire away from heat sources.
With a little preparation, your house can be a cozy and safe place to escape the cold winter. When your house is safe from the cold and fire, it will be a lot easier to relax with a cup of coffee and get lost in that novel.
Cozy seems that much cozier when you have peace of mind.