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Seasonal safety
Winter weather increases house fire risks

COVINGTON - Many people consider the ideal holiday activity to be a family gathering around a roaring fire on a cold winter's day, swapping stories and building memories to last a lifetime.

But a happy time can quickly turn into a nightmare in the event that a home fire breaks out, and area public safety officials are asking residents to use care and foresight when planning their holiday activites to prevent such an occurence.

"Fire and accidents take no holidays," said Newton County Fire Service Fire and Life Safety Specialist Cynie Taylor. "Newton County Fire Service believes that the only way to eliminate the tragedies of fires and other threatening injuries is to educate our citizens through prevention.

"All accidents are preventable," she added.

One of the primary causes of fires during the winter months is the use of alternative heating equipment, like pellet stoves, wood stoves and space heaters.

When homeowners are facing record-high energy costs, such alternatives can look very attractive. And while alternative heating sources are not inherently a greater fire risk, their use must be paired with caution, Taylor said.

Almost half of home heating equipment fires are reported during the months of December, January and February. Since Dec. 1, there have been two residential structure fires in Newton County due to cracks in chimneys or breaches in the chimney pipes, one incidence of smoke damage to a home due to improper use of a fireplace, fire damage to a home caused by using an appliance to heat the home, and a residential bedding fire due to careless use of fire tools.

According to Taylor, most of those incidents could have been avoided had more care been used in efforts to heat homes.

Another major cause of fires are cooking accidents. Taylor said three residential structure fires have occured so far this month due to careless cooking practices, with one incident causing a person third-degree burns.

But by using the following safety tips, area residents can be assured of enjoying a happy, safe - and warm - holiday season, she said.

Safety Tips

· Keep anything that can burn at least three feet away from heating equipment, such as the furnace, fireplace, wood stove or portable heater.

· Only use heating equipment that has the label of a recognized testing laboratory.

· Never use your oven for heating.

· Have a qualified professional install stationary space heating equipment, water heaters or central heating equipment according to the local codes and manufacturer's instructions.

· Maintain heating equipment and chimneys by having them cleaned and inspected annually by a qualified professional.

· Turn portable heaters off when leaving the room or going to bed.

· For fuel-burning space heaters, always use the proper fuel as specified by the manufacturer.

· Make sure the fireplace has a sturdy screen to prevent sparks from flying into the room and burn only dry, seasoned wood. Allow ashes to cool before disposing in a metal container, which is kept a safe distance from the home.

· For wood-burning stoves, install chimney connectors and chimneys following manufacturer's instructions or have a professional do the installation.

· Make sure all fuel-burning equipment is vented to the outside to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

· Install and maintain carbon monoxide (CO) alarms to avoid the risk of CO poisoning.

· If you smell gas in your gas heater, do not attempt to light the appliance. Turn off all the controls and open doors and windows. Call a gas service person.

· Test smoke alarms at least monthly.

Cooking Safety Tips

Cooking fires are the number one cause of home fires and home injuries. The leading cause of fires in the kitchen is unattended cooking. It's important to be alert to prevent cooking fires.

· Stay in the kitchen when you are frying, grilling or broiling food. If you leave the kitchen for even a short period of time, turn off the stove.

· If you are simmering, baking, roasting or boiling food, check it regularly, remain in the home while food is cooking, and use a timer to remind you that you are cooking.

· Keep anything that can catch fire - oven mitts, wooden utensils, food packaging, towels or curtains - away from your stovetop.

· Keep the stovetop, burners and oven clean.

· Wear short, close-fitting or tightly rolled sleeves when cooking. Loose clothing can dangle onto stove burners and can catch fire if it comes in contact with a gas flame or electric burner.

· Have a "kid-free zone" of at least 3 feet around the stove and areas where hot food or drink is prepared or carried.

· Always use cooking equipment that has the label of a recognized testing laboratory.

· Follow manufacturer's instructions and code requirements when installing, cleaning, and operating cooking equipment.

· Plug microwave ovens or other cooking appliances directly into an outlet. Never use an extension cord for a cooking appliance as it can overload the circuit and cause a fire.

· Check electrical cords for cracks, breaks or damage.

In the event of a cooking fire:

· Just get out! When you leave, close the door behind you to help contain the fire.

· Call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number after you leave.

· If you do try to fight the fire, be sure others are already getting out and you have a clear path to the exit.

· Always keep a lid nearby when you're cooking. If a small grease fire starts in a pan, smother the flames by carefully sliding the lid over the pan. Turn off the burner. Do not move the pan. To keep the fire from restarting, leave the lid on until the pan is completely cool.

· In case of an oven fire, turn off the heat and keep the door closed. After a fire, the oven should be checked and/or serviced before being used again.

Information Resource: NFPA Public Education Division, www.nfpa.org/education