When it comes to the holidays, fire safety is an important yet often overlooked aspect to keeping times merry.
From decorations to cooking, there are different tips and concerns for keeping loved ones safe. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) offers several facts and tips, which the Record-Herald recently discussed with Washington Fire Department (WFD) Fire Chief Tim Downing.
According to the NFPA, more than one-third of home decoration fires are started by candles. It is advised to blow out candles before leaving a room and especially before going to sleep or leaving the premises. Keep lit candles away from other decorations and items that can catch fire.
Downing also advised, “be careful when choosing decorations, and make sure they are flame resistant and flame retardant. Over the years, that resistance wears down, so replacing decorations is important for safety.”
While not as common as candle fires, Christmas tree fires do occur and, when they occur, are likely to be serious as trees burn quickly.
The NFPA encourages residents to get rid of a live tree after Christmas or when it is dry — it should not be left in the home, garage or placed outside against the home.
“One of the biggest things is making sure you keep the trees watered,” said Downing. “That’s a very big thing. A tree that dries out burns very fast. Live trees, in particular, burn very rapidly. Once they light, you have very little time to get out.”
Fake trees, while they don’t require watering and don’t dry out, are still combustible. It is important to keep both live and fake trees at least three feet away from heat sources and to turn off lights when leaving the premises or going to sleep.
Candles and trees aren’t the only cause of decoration fires as more than two of every five decoration fires happens because decorations are too close to a heat source, and more than one in every five of tree fires are caused by the tree being too close to a heat source.
To not be part of this statistic, turning off all light strings and decorations before leaving the premises or going to sleep can help, as can keeping clutter away from decorations.
Having items too close to a heat source is dangerous for more than just decorations.
“We’re in colder months, and people are using space heaters. Space heaters can be very safe. They can be. They become dangerous when we pile combustible material around space heaters,” said Downing.
Essentially, space heaters typically have safety features such as turning off if they tip over or turning off if they get too hot. These safety features can’t help if combustible material is against the heater and is getting too hot. For instance, if a sock is against the heater, the heater won’t know the sock is getting too hot and won’t turn off. As the sock continues to get hot, it can ignite.
Downing explained this situation is the same for baseboard heaters if combustible materials, such as papers, clothing, etc., are piled around them. This has occurred locally with one of the more recent situations involving a pile of clothing that was touching a baseboard heater and ignited.
“Baseboard heaters are very safe until you put combustible material against that heating element,” said Downing. “And it tends to be the same for space heaters.”
There should be at least three feet of space all around heaters, he said.
While systems using vents in the house are safer, keeping them uncovered helps to increase efficiency of the furnace and is safer. Having them covered makes the furnace work harder to warm the house. Floor vents get very hot — so, keeping them clean is important for safety.
Reducing clutter around decorations and heating elements is only part of staying safe. Another easily overlooked concern is damaged electrical cords. Of tree fires, almost one third of them are caused by electrical problems.
According to the NFPA and Downing, damaged electrical cords, damaged light cords, and light cords with loose bulb connections should be replaced. Clips, instead of nails, should be used for hanging light cords, and decorations should be kept away from windows and doors.
Downing said it is important to use grounded multi-plug strips with built-in breakers and not the smaller extension cords that lack safety features. By using proper electrical cords that can handle the needed current, the chance of fire decreases — especially for residents who wish to leave outside lights on for others to see. He encouraged residents to do research on what kind of cords they need and to be aware of which light strands and decorations are inside or outside only.
Cooking is another large part of the holiday season. With the holidays, people love to be together, and that isn’t always in the kitchen or near cooking food. According to the NFPA, the leading cause of fires in the kitchen is unattended cooking.
If the cook is leaving the kitchen, make sure to check on the food often and be sure there are working fire and/or smoke alarms. Set a timer just as an extra reminder, suggested Downing.
“I have seen plenty of kitchen fires because of a turkey in the oven. We want to avoid those fires,” he said.
Of cooking fires in a home, the majority involve the kitchen stove. There should be a three foot zone around cooking equipment for safety. This zone should be monitored and free of children.
Tips for safer cooking, according to Downing, include turn pots and pan handles inward so children can’t grab them and dump boiling water or other food items on themselves, be right next to children who are helping cook, and don’t leave the room while food is cooking if possible.
“Especially when frying with grease. If you have grease on the stove, it only takes a moment for that grease to ignite,” he said. “Smoking is when it’s creating the vapors and getting ready to ignite.”
When there is a grease fire, the safest thing is not to move anything. Put the pan cover on and turn the heat off. Always keep a lid nearby just in case. Then call the fire department.
If there is an oven fire, Downing said to close the oven door, turn off the heat, leave while shutting doors on the way out, and call the fire department.
If anytime there is a fire or potential fire, Downing said to call the fire department immediately so they can double check the situation. This ensures if there is a hidden fire that is unseen, they can find it as soon as possible.
This is another situation that has happened locally. A homeowner will put out a fire, do a fantastic job with putting it out, but there is hidden fire they were unaware of. By not calling the fire department immediately, there is more damage than would have occurred had they called the fire department immediately.
One last tip for the holidays: “Ask smokers to smoke outside,” said Downing. “We do get a lot of fires due to smoking, such as a recent fire when discarded smoking material lit trash on fire. It was an accident, but it does occur.”
A metal can, not plastic or Styrofoam or other combustible material, can be set up outside for discarding smoking material.
Make sure there are working smoke detectors and known routes for getting out of the house in emergencies.
“I want everybody to have a very happy holiday season and be safe. The safer they are, the safer the people here (at the fire department) are,” said Downing. “If ever any doubt, just call the fire department. Fire will double in size every 30 to 60 seconds, so every minute counts.”
Reach journalist Jennifer Woods at 740-313-0355.