House fire risk is greater during the winter

Homeowners should always exercise common sense and reasonable caution to reduce the risk of a fire in their residence. But you should be especially careful during the winter months, when fires are more likely to occur in the home.

According to a 2005 report by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, "The Seasonal Nature of Fires," the total number of fires—including brush fires and vehicle fires—decreases during the winter. However, the number of structure fires increases.

The main reason for this trend is the increasing likelihood of people to spend time indoors, which in turn makes them more likely to rely on heating sources. However, other seasonal factors can also increase the risk of a house fire during the winter. Judy Dutton, writing for the National Association of Realtors, says the dry winter air can also cause wooden building materials to dry out and become more combustible.


It's always a good idea to get your furnace inspected before the heating season starts. FEMA says the inspection and any repairs should be done by a qualified professional; don't try them on your own unless you're qualified.

A basic inspection of the furnace can let you know if there are any warning signs. If the walls near a heating pipe are discolored or hot to the touch, the pipes should be insulated or given more clearance. You'll also want to look for any soot or other signs of a leak.

Many homeowners use portable space heaters to help warm up chilly rooms during the winter. While these heaters can be helpful, they can also easily cause a fire if placed too close to combustible materials. The National Fire Protection Association recommends that combustibles be kept at least three feet from heating equipment.

Look for a portable heater with a shutoff function which will turn off the heat if the device is knocked over. Use the correct type of fuel for the heater, and turn it off before you go to bed or leave the home. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety also recommends periodically inspecting the cord and outlet when using electric heaters to see if they are damaged or overheating.

Wood stoves and fireplaces are a popular secondary heat source, and can add some atmosphere to the home as well. FEMA says they should be properly installed, have adequate floor support and at least three feet of clearance from any combustible materials.

Be careful about what you burn in a wood-burning stove or fireplace. Use dry, seasoned firewood, and never use lighter fluid or other flammable liquids to start a fire.

Don't use too much paper to start the fire or keep it going, since this can accelerate the buildup of flammable creosote on the inside of the chimney. Have a professional clean the chimney at least once a year to remove this creosote and inspect the condition of the chimney.

Use a metal screen or other sturdy barrier to keep embers from escaping the fireplace. Avoid keeping flammable items too close to the fire.

When taking ashes out of a wood-burning stove or fireplace, keep them in a safe place. The National Fire Protection Association says they should be removed to a metal container a safe distance from the home.

Never use an oven to heat your home.

Cooking and candles

Since Thanksgiving and Christmas take place during the colder months, cooking fires can be more prevalent during the winter. Of course, a warm meal is a great comfort on a frigid evening and you can increase the possibility of a cooking fire simply by cooking more.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety says you should stay in the kitchen while cooking. Try not to wear loose fitting clothing, which can ignite if it comes in contact with a burner.

Keep combustible materials a safe distance from the stovetop and other hot surfaces. If a fire occurs on the stovetop, it can often be contained by putting a tight fitting lid over the pot. Blanche Evans, writing for Realty Times, says salt and baking soda can also be useful in extinguishing cooking fires; never use water on a grease fire, since this can actually help it spread.

Homeowners tend to use candles more often during the winter. The National Fire Protection Association says you should never leave a candle unattended or with a young child. Keep it on a stable, uncluttered surface where it won't ignite nearby materials or tip over.

Other precautions

On particularly cold days, your pipes might freeze. FEMA says you should never use a blowtorch or open flame to thaw them. This method may ignite combustible materials, or the pipe could conduct the heat to a wall and cause it to catch fire.

After a heavy snowfall, make sure to shovel out any fire hydrants near your home. This will ensure that the fire department is able to respond as quickly as possible if a blaze occurs.

Natural Christmas trees can create an elevated fire risk if they are not properly cared for. The National Fire Protection Association says they should be watered frequently to keep them from drying out.

Basic safety precautions can also be helpful. Evans says these should include periodic testing of your smoke alarms, keeping a fire extinguisher handy in the kitchen, and practicing an escape route to use in case of fire.


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