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Home Fire Safety

When cold weather hits many West Virginians turn to alternative heat sources to cut gas and fuel costs. But, according to West Virginia University Extension Service’s expert, those sources can spark real danger if not managed properly.

“The risk for house fires directly increases during the colder months as people turn to wood burning fireplaces and space heaters,” said Mark Fullen, WVU Safety and Health Extension director. “Educating yourself about the risks one of the best ways to ensure safety.”

West Virginia is a national leader when it comes to home fire fatalities, ranking above the national average. According to the United States Fire Association, residents are 1.6 times more likely to die in a fire than a typical United States resident.

Preventing Chimney Fires

To help prevent chimney fires when using a fireplace, check that the fireplace and chimney are functional, clean and able to properly exhaust smoke and gasses away from the living spaces. Use properly seasoned firewood.

“When burned, non-seasoned wood can deposit high levels of creosote, and though it might not look it to the untrained eye, thick, flammable creosote deposits can create a dangerous situation,” said Fullen.

Carbon Monoxide Dangers

Carbon monoxide (CO), a colorless, odorless and toxic gas can be released from home heating methods. When the gas collects in enclosed spaces, the results can be lethal.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include nausea, dizziness, weakness, muscle aches, vomiting and sleepiness. Higher doses can cause paralysis, confusion, coma and death.

Blocked or damaged chimneys and damaged furnace heat exchangers can allow the gas to accumulate in the home. Fullen also warns against using appliances like, gas ranges, ovens, clothes dryers and grills to heat the home for similar reasons.

Regular inspection and maintenance of all fuel-burning appliances conducted by a qualified technician can help provide safety measures for family members.

In accordance with the Consumer Product Safety Commission standards, Fullen recommends carbon monoxide detectors located near bedrooms so the alarm can awaken sleeping individuals. Additional detectors on every level and near every sleeping area provides extra protection against carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide detectors need replaced every 5 to 7 years.

Space Heater Safety

As an alternative to fireplaces, portable space heaters are readily available, economical and heat single rooms. But Fullen warns that space heaters are just as dangerous as they are convenient, citing them as the leading cause of home fires during the months of December through February. 

Consider all variables when purchasing a space heater. The three main types available are room gas heaters, portable electric heaters and portable kerosene heaters. Look for units with thermostatic controls, an automatic shutoff feature and a “tip switch” that shuts the heater off if the device is knocked over.

When using heaters, keep objects at least three feet away from it — combustible or flammable objects within that space increase the likelihood of fire.

Use additional caution when operating space heaters near children and pets. These heaters reach temperatures high enough to burn whomever may accidentally touch them.

Preventing Home Fire Deaths

“Of course, there are simple steps to keep your home safer in the event of a fire and should be practiced year-round,” said Fullen. “Smoke detectors should be installed in every level of the home and outside every sleeping area. Test them monthly, replace the batteries once a year and replace the unit itself once every ten years.” 

If you have additional questions about heating your home safely, call your local office of the WVU Extension Service.