Chief: Fire big threat during winter

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 14, 2004

If Ohioans think deadly fires take time off for the holidays during cold winter months, they should think again.

According to State Fire Marshal Stephen Woltz and the Ohio Department of Commerce, there were six fires in Ohio involving holiday trees last year. One of those fires killed seven people when an unattended candle ignited a tree.

But this isn't just a statewide problem; fires strike here at home as well.

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"We see at least one burned Christmas tree every year," said Tom Runyon, Ironton Fire Department Chief. "It's pretty tough for a family to deal with, especially around the holidays."

To avoid becoming a statistic, Runyon offered area residents a few tips for staying safe this winter.

How lovely are thy branches

"For a real tree, you have to keep water in it (the tree stand) all the time," Runyon said. "It's advised that you cut about an inch off the bottom to make the tree absorb water better."

By keeping the tree watered, it is less likely to dry out or become a fire hazard, he said.

But safety begins before ever bringing the evergreen home. Inspect a tree carefully prior to buying it to make sure its needles are flexible and hold fast to the branches. If needles fall off easily, the tree has been cut too long and has probably dried out already.

While live trees can be especially dangerous when left unattended, artificial trees can also present a hazard if the lights used to decorate them are in poor condition. Check lights before putting them on any tree by looking for frayed wires, gaps in insulation, broken sockets or excessive wear.

Whether live or artificial, Christmas trees should always be kept away from open flames. Do not leave candles burning nearby or allow trees to be placed too close to fireplaces, heaters or other sources of intense heat.

Looks a lot like Christmas

The holidays are often a time to decorate not only the tree but also the exterior of homes. Lawns begin to resemble winter wonderlands as Santa and his reindeer, candy canes and nativity scenes light up the night.

Such decorations are beautiful, but they can be a fire hazard if not cared for properly.

"Christmas decorations should be UL approved," Runyon said. "Don't overload sockets and make sure your electrical system has enough fusing capability (to handle the additional lighting)Š.Lighting should never be left unattended."

Use only non-flammable decorations and be sure to turn off lights before leaving home or going to bed.

Keeping home fires burning

"There's usually a rise in the number of fires during the winter season as a result of people overtaxing their electrical systems, using auxiliary heating systems or even (the homeless) starting fires outside to keep warm," Runyon said.

With increasing energy costs, many people are turning to alternative heating sources such as kerosene or space heaters. These devices can be relatively safe when used properly, but Chief Runyon said he would discourage people from using them altogether.

"Auxiliary heating is not normally recommended, but if (residents choose to use this type of heating source) they should use extreme caution," Runyon said.

Remember to keep heaters at least three feet away from flammable material like curtains and bedding. Plug only one heating device into a single socket.

Even traditional heating sources require users to take precautions, however. Furnaces should be checked regularly to ensure they are in good working order. Chimneys and stoves must be inspected to prevent creosote buildup, which can also cause fires.

While less intense than a roaring fireplace, a candle's soothing glow can quickly spell disaster if left unattended. According to the State Fire Marshal's Office, there has been a 300 percent increase in the number of candle-related fires in the past ten years.

Deck the Halls

Christmas should be a time for family and friends, not fires. Although the number of fires generally rises during the winter months, using a little common sense can make the holidays safe for everyone.