Cold snap, fire danger
Recent fires bring attention to space heaters, use of smoke detectors
ISHPEMING — Two fires within a week in Ishpeming are stark reminders about the way we heat our homes during a cold snap and the need for every residence to have working smoke detectors.
“We are just finding people are using space heaters to heat their homes and … there are all sorts of crazy things … being used to thaw pipes,” Ishpeming Fire Chief Ed Anderson said.
Twenty-six structure fires were reported to Marquette County Central Dispatch from November 2015 to April 2016 and in the same time frame in 2016-2017, 24 were reported, MCCD Manager Gary Johnson said.
“We aren’t generally told the causes, but based in my estimate and firefighting experience, less than five per year are due to space heaters and thawing pipes,” Johnson said. “But when the weather is cold like this, I would expect that to go up a little bit.”
Nationally, heating equipment accounted for 16 percent reported home fires from 2009-2013, and 19 percent of all home fire deaths, according to a National Fire Protection Association fact sheet.
Space heaters are the type of equipment most often involved in home heating fires, the report states, figuring in two of every five of these fires and accounting for 84 percent of associated civilian deaths, 75 percent of civilian injuries and 52 percent of direct property damage.
Anderson said far too many residences in Ishpeming are kept warm by using space heaters, which can be dangerous especially if the devices are left unattended.
“From what I know about space heaters, they don’t cause fires 98 percent of the time, but when they do cause them, it’s at night,” Anderson said. “They can be dangerous. They are very useful when used properly, but they are just not made for that primary heat source and in a lot of cases that is what is happening. Especially the lower economic section of the community are finding themselves in housing where they are almost forced to use space heaters to keep warm.”
Anderson said residents shouldn’t leave a room while a space heater is running, and should make sure the device has a clear three- foot radius around it.
According to the NFPA fact sheet, the leading factor contributing to ignition for home heating fire deaths — 56 percent — was heating equipment too close to things that can burn, such as upholstered furniture, clothing, mattresses or bedding.
Anderson also recommends plugging heating devices directly into an outlet and avoiding the use of extension cords. Extension cords themselves can overheat, causing higher fire risk. He also strongly recommends against using an open oven as a source of home heat.
“On one of my recent calls, I woke the lady up, and not a few feet away from me near the front door her oven was wide open,” Anderson said. “She was using it for heat, and that is not what they should be used for.”
In addition to what he calls a disturbing trend in the use of space heaters, Anderson said too many residences do not have working smoke detectors.
“One of the fires was caused by a resident using a propane heater to thaw pipes under the kitchen sink. They didn’t have a smoke detector,” Anderson said. “One of the occupants smelled smoke. They were extremely lucky she woke up when she did.”
Almost all U.S. homes have at least one smoke alarm, the NFPA report states, but three of every five home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no smoke alarms or none that worked.
Anderson recommends replacing smoke alarms that are more than 10 years old and replacing batteries in the devices every spring and fall.
The American Red Cross does distribute smoke detectors at certain times of the year to people who cannot afford them. Anyone wishing to apply for smoke detector assistance can do so at www.redcross.org/local/michigan/home-fire-safety/smoke-alarm.
In terms of frozen pipes, it is best to be proactive before the winter freeze, Anderson said. But homeowners can still take action if a freeze has not yet occurred. Make sure to block any drafts, especially in basements, cellars or crawlspaces near water pipes.
Other tips from the American Red Cross include keeping kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors open to allow heat to circulate around plumbing, and when it is very cold outside allow water to drip from faucets served by exposed pipes.
If a freeze does occur, Anderson said safe ways to defrost pipes are heat tape, a heating pad or a hair dryer.
Space heaters can also be used as long as someone is in the room with the heater at all times, Anderson said.
“It’s not safe, even with an electric space heater, to leave it unattended — things could go bad,” Anderson said.
You should never use kerosene or propane heaters, Anderson said, and electric heat guns for removing paint are not recommended, nor is any device that uses an open flame to create heat.
“If you do have a frozen pipe, you can also reach out to a local licensed plumber,” Anderson said. “They would be more knowledgeable about methods that they have available.”
More tips on thawing frozen pipes can be found on the American Red Cross website, www.redcross.org.
Anderson said the more people understand about safety precautions while using space heaters, the better.
“If we could stop one person in the town or in the county from having an incident,” Anderson said, “… it makes all this worth it.”
Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.