“It’s that time of the year obviously and we’re changing from warm mild weather to cooler and even colder weather,” said Waymond Westbrook, fire marshal for Walker County Emergency Services.
Westbrook cautions people who are using alternative heat sources, such as kerosene heaters.
“Unfortunately a lot of people haven’t check things out before they need them,” Westbrook said.
Frayed cords and other neglected preventative maintenance items are frequently the culprit in house fires.
Kerosene heaters should be started outdoors for the first time each year so as to safely detect any leaks or problems.
Westbrook suggests that combustible materials (including clothing and curtains) be kept more than three feet away from any space heater.
The most frequent mistake that leads to fires is utilizing an extension cord with a space heater, which makes them significantly more dangerous.
“We have had (fires) quite often where people are using (space heaters) on extension cords.” Westbrook said. “They are not designed to be used that way and need to be plugged directly into the wall.”
He especially cautions those who chose to use real trees for Christmas, as the holiday decoration requires water daily to avoid becoming another fire hazard this season.
“The fresher the tree, the better off your going be,” Westbrook said. “Before you purchase it, you really need to check the needles on it and run your hand down one limb to make sure the needles aren’t falling off in handfuls. If they are, that tree is going to be a hazard inside the house.”
Some trees that have been cut several weeks prior can pose a greater danger as they dry out.
Improper usage of propane-based turkey fryers also can also pose a threat of severe injuries and fire, and should always be used outside with a significant distance from any structure.
“People need to be very careful using those or any kind of cooking device,” Westbrook said. “It’s mostly common sense things. But we get in this hustle bustle of this particular time of year and we’re not as cautious as we normally are.”
He also cautions against becoming too busy and walking away from stovetops, only to return to a grease fire.
Preparing for a fire
In November a fire at a log cabin on Ringgold Road was caused by fireplace embers that sparked a kindling fire as the homeowner was retrieving more firewood. The fireplace screen had been left open, causing the fire, which was limited to the living room due to a quick response by Walker County Emergency Services firefighters, according to Westbrook.
Aside from the precautions to avoid a fire, having resources and a plan to deal with or escape a fire are equally important.
Elementary-age children are taught to “stop, drop and roll” as part of annual fire safety programs by Walker County Emergency Services personnel.
Officials suggest using similar techniques if a homeowner awakens to a blaze.
Keeping bedroom doors closed is also important to provide one more barrier to the fire and allow more time to escape.
He cautions against rushing out the door after being abruptly interrupted from sleep.
“Roll out of the bed to the floor,” Westbrook said. “Check it with the back of your hand to make sure the fire hasn’t developed out there. If the door is not hot, you can open it. Check for smoke, then check on family members and make an escape.
Smoke and heat rise; so, stay low to the ground while covering your mouth to avoid being overcome by smoke inhalation.
“Everybody should know at least two ways out of their house,” Westbrook said. “A lot of people think about it but don’t practice and that’s important because you never know what is going to happen in the heat of the moment.”
Exiting through windows is a good idea in a single-story home, but more challenging from a second-story residence, possibly requiring the purchase of a roll-up escape ladder.
The most important items are smoke alarms, which should be spaced throughout the home.
“Checking your smoke alarms monthly will ensure that you have a good working alarm,” he said. “Eighty percent of people that die in house fires do not have a working smoke alarm in the house.”
Changing batteries at least twice a year is critical. A fire extinguisher is also important.
The use of a carbon monoxide detector is also important for any heating with an open flame (natural gas, propane, kerosene) or using a fireplace or gas stove.
Unlike a fire, carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless and tasteless, so it can easily go unnoticed until it is too late. Repeated headaches at home that disappear upon going outside can be a telltale sign of a high carbon level in a home. The carbon could eventually become lethal.