Cold Weather Adds to Fire Calls, Concerns About Space Heaters

By Staff Reports | Posted in: News

(Photo courtesy Your Best Digs, licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).)

Bitterly cold weather has led many people to use space heaters to supplement their regular furnace or boiler. But the American Red Cross and local fire officials are warning that those devices can be dangerous.

"We do see a lot of people overloading circuits using space heaters," McKeesport fire Chief Jeff Tomovcsik says. "It's a general cause of fires this time of year. We also see Christmas tree fires this time of year, too. It's a busy time of year for us."

Dan Tobin, regional spokesman for the American Red Cross in Pittsburgh, says the Western Pennsylvania Region of the agency last year assisted 4,000 people in 1,700 disasters over the past 12 months, and most of them were house fires.

Heating equipment fires are the second-leading cause of house fires, Tobin says, and are responsible for about 19 percent of deaths in residential fires.

This is a bad idea, according to the American Red Cross. Space heaters account for 43 percent of all residential fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association. The Red Cross says they should never be placed on carpets or near bedding, such as pillows. (Photo, "Space Heater Hog" by Tess Dixon via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

Furthermore, according to the National Fire Protection Association, between 2011 and 2015, space heaters alone accounted for 43 percent of home heating fires, and 85 percent of home heating fire deaths. Most of the fires are in December, January and February.

The NFPA says that according to its research, placing inflammable items (things that can burn) too close to heating equipment, or placing the heating equipment too close to things that can burn --- including clothing, curtains, couches, mattresses, bedspreads and bedding --- caused the majority of those deaths.

But fireplaces and wood-burning stoves are also a risk, the NFPA says. About 28 percent of home heating fires began in chimneys that were improperly cleaned and clogged with creosote.

The Red Cross released a set of tips for residents who plan to use a space heater or fireplace to keep warm:

  • All heaters need space. Keep children, pets and things that can burn --- paper, matches, bedding, furniture, carpets, clothing and rugs --- at least three feet away from heaters.
  • Never leave a fire in the fireplace unattended. Use a glass or metal screen to keep fire and sparks in the fireplace.
  • Never use a cooking stove, oven or range to heat your home.
  • Turn off portable space heaters when you leave a room, or before you go to sleep.
  • Have wood and coal stoves, fireplaces and chimneys checked every year by a professional, and cleaned if necessary.
  • If you must use a space heater, put it on a hard surface that will not burn, such as a ceramic tile floor, not on rugs or carpets or near a bed or drapes. 
  • Plug power cords directly into an outlet and not into extension cords or "power strips."

Originally published January 03, 2018.

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