A cozy fire in the winter is something we all enjoy, but only when it's confined to the fireplace. The U.S. Fire Administration reports that winter residential building fires result in approximately 945 deaths and 3,845 injuries each year, along with an estimated $1.7 billion in property damage.
We're closing our homes up for the winter. We're cooking indoors more, and using fireplaces and heaters with greater frequency. Holiday decorations are going up. The potential for a fire in your home is no joke, especially this time of year. And statistically, the peak occurrences for residential building fires in the winter comes between 5 and 8 p.m., so it doesn't take a lot of reading between the lines to visualize the human error factors at work.
There's a lot you can do to keep your home fire-safe this holiday season and all winter long. Since most of it's simple common sense, you're probably going to want to skim over the rest of this. But please don't.
In several decades as a contractor, I've seen and worked on dozens of residential fires, and their aftermath is nothing short of tragic; preventing one is the best home improvement project you can ever undertake.
Simple awareness is the key
Extension cords: Don't use them if you can avoid it. Be sure they're of the proper wire size for the item being plugged into it, and don't ever exceed that. If what you're plugging into the extension cord has a grounded plug, then the extension cord needs to have a grounded plug also; don't ever alter or defeat the grounding leg on the cord. Don't put cords in front of fireplaces, heaters or cooking appliances, and don't drape them where they can fall down onto something hot.
Candles: Candles have a dangerous open flame, so be careful where you set them. A candle on a window sill can set a curtain on fire if a breeze pushes the curtain over the flame. Candles can ignite paperwork or books on shelves, or other nearby flammables. Always burn candles on a candle holder, not directly on a flammable surface. Jar candles are safer since the flame is contained, and the lid will completely snuff out the flame.
Holiday decorations: Water your Christmas tree regularly. It's no joke -- those dry needles will go up with incredible speed and burn with fierce intensity. Pay close attention to where the tree and other decorations are placed so that they're not too close to sources of ignition, such as a fireplace or a heater.
Hot ashes: Fireplace ashes are hot long after the fire has gone out. If you're going to clean out your fireplace, don't put the ashes in a paper bag, cardboard box, or plastic garbage can. Put ashes only in a metal can with an airtight lid that's approved for that use.
Space heaters: Be very careful with the use and placement of space heaters. Never point a space heater directly at anything flammable, such as a pile of newspapers or clothing. Never use a space heater with a worn cord, a missing safety guard, or a model that lacks a safety shutoff that automatically shuts the unit off if it gets tipped over.
Combustible materials: Having a stack of newspaper near the fireplace for starting the fire is an accident waiting to happen. Store newspapers, kindling and firewood a safe distance away from the fireplace. The same goes for other combustibles, such as clothing, dog beds, etc. If you have wall heaters, never allow clothing, cardboard boxes, newspapers or other combustibles to build up in front of them.
Leaves and needles: Don't let dry leaves and needles build up on your roof, especially a wood roof. Make sure the spark arrestor on your chimney is in place as well.
Beyond these acts of simple awareness, there are some other things you need to be aware of when it comes to preventing a tragedy in your home.
Smoke alarms: Beyond the obvious of making sure you have an adequate number of smoke alarms and checking the batteries twice a year (daylight saving time is an easy reminder), remember that smoke alarms have about a seven-year life expectancy, and should be replaced periodically. The other issue with smoke alarms is that people tend to disconnect them due to nuisance alarms, such as those caused by cooking. Never disconnect your smoke alarm; instead, if nuisance alarms are an issue, consider upgrading to a new generation microprocessor alarm, such as the IoPhic Smoke and Fire Alarm. These types of alarms respond better to slow, smoldering fires and also virtually eliminate most types of nuisance alarms.
Never create a sleeping room that doesn't have egress: It might be easy to convert a room in the basement or perhaps an attic into a sleeping room for a temporary occupant, but if that room doesn't have an emergency exterior egress, then don't use it! In the event of a fire, it can become a literal death trap.
Have an escape plan: During the heat, smoke and chaos of a fire it's easy to become confused and disoriented, especially at night. Everyone in the family needs to know and practice an escape route from each room all the way to the exterior of the house. Once outside, have an agreed upon meeting spot safely away from the house, such as the end of the driveway or perhaps a neighbor's.
Have an escape ladder: If you have a multistory house, have an escape ladder for each sleeping room on the upper floors. The ladder needs to reach from the egress window all the way to the ground, and every family member needs to be trained on how to deploy and use it.
Renters insurance: Finally, if you or someone you know is a renter, get renters insurance immediately. It's inexpensive insurance against losing everything you own in the event of a fire, and it's simply foolish not to have it!