Safety experts raise alarms over fire risks

January 17, 2018 Cranberry Local News

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With winter in full swing, area fire departments are dealing with the annual uptick in fires and calls as people increasingly rely on heaters, furnaces and fireplaces to keep warm.

Between 2011 and 2015, January saw an average of 5,000 more structure fires a year across the country, according to the National Fire Prevention Association.

“Every time the weather gets really cold, statistically house fires increase,” said Bill Hayes, Adams Area fire chief. “When we had this cold snap it seems that the fires have tended to go up.”

Last week, the Adams Area Fire District fielded 26 calls, eight of which were structure fires, and they only expect that to increase.

Many of these fires are the result of malfunctioning or improperly used heating equipment like furnaces, space heaters and fireplaces.

“Heaters are overextended,” said Tim Sapienza, president of Harmony Fire District.

Ideally, property owners will maintain their heating systems throughout the year to prevent problems in the winter, Hayes said.

“Waiting until the cold snap of winter and never having your furnace looked at tends to cause problems,” Hayes said. “Have your furnace looked at.”

If a furnace appears to be malfunctioning, Hayes recommends turning off the thermostat and, if needed, calling the fire department.

Space heaters also pose risks to homes and other structures as they can be easily misused or left unattended.

“They should never be relied on,” Hayes said. “If you do use them, they should be under adult supervision at all times, and there should be at least 3- to 5-feet around the space heater.”

Heaters should also never be plugged in with an extension cord, Sapienza said.

Hayes also warned of the dangers of fireplaces which are not properly used or maintained

“Fireplaces should never be left alone or unattended. They need a lot of preventive maintenance done,” Hayes said. “We highly encourage people to only burn dry, good wood. They should not be burning pine, they should be burning (wood) like oak. There are certain trees that shouldn’t be burned because they have a lot of creosote or other things.”

In addition to causing fires, the buildup of creosote and other dangerous chemicals can be hazardous to one’s health.

If something does go awry, Hayes suggested putting out the fire if safe and closing the damper, then calling the fire department.