7 ways to prevent a house fire during winter
House fires have injured a firefighter in Elgin, hurt three people in Lake Villa and left homes in Wauconda, Hoffman Estates and Naperville uninhabitable, all in the last few days.
Officials link some of the fires to homeowners' attempts to stay warm indoors while outdoor temperatures are below freezing.
Space heaters or other heating equipment is involved in one in every seven reported house fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association -- including the Elgin blaze Saturday, triggered by a mattress too close to a space heater in an attic. Fireplaces, candles and even Christmas trees create a cozy atmosphere on chilly days but can put residents at risk.
How do you keep your house from being next? Here are some answers from local fire officials.
1. How can I safely use a space heater to warm up a room?
Space heaters should always be plugged directly into a wall outlet (only one at a time, though) and should never be left unattended, said fire investigator Brian Bagdon of the Libertyville Fire Department. Power strips and extension cords are not designed to run electric heaters, which draw a lot of amperage and could cause external cords to overheat, he said.
Combustibles such as paper, furniture, curtains, bedding or flammable liquids should be kept at least three feet away from space heaters, Elgin Fire Chief David Schmidt said. He also suggested buying a space heater that automatically shuts off if it tips over or malfunctions.
2. How can I make sure my fireplace is ready for use?
In Wauconda Saturday night, flames began erupting from the base of the fireplace on the outside of the house while residents were inside enjoying a fire. The house was heavily damaged.
Before lighting the first fire of the year, residents should have their chimneys cleaned and inspected by a qualified professional, fire officials said.
Remember to open the flue before starting the fire, said Andrew Dina, deputy chief of operations for the Naperville Fire Department, and make sure the fireplace has a sturdy screen to prevent sparks from entering the living space. Afterward, wait until the ashes have completely cooled down and place them in a metal container -- never a garbage can -- to be stored outside and away from the house.
3. What methods should I avoid using to warm up my house?
Never use kitchen appliances as supplemental heating devices, Schmidt said. Using a range or oven for warmth is not only a safety hazard but can also be a source of potentially toxic fumes. Burning charcoal indoors can give off lethal amounts of carbon monoxide, Schmidt said.
4. What decorations can post dangers?
Candles can be hazardous when they burn down too low, are left unattended or are burning too close to flammable materials, experts say. Dina recommended switching to flameless candles.
He said the Jan. 4 Naperville fire can be traced to the family's live Christmas tree in the living room. Within minutes, much of the house was ablaze.
"Our crews got there very quickly and the majority of that first floor was involved in flames," he said.
Christmas tree or garland fires, though not common, can be very serious and often occur because of electrical problems, he said.
And when you're discarding your live tree, place it outdoors away from the house until it can be picked up or recycled, Dina said.
5. How can I prevent pipes from freezing?
Frozen pipes can be avoided by routinely trickling hot and cold water from faucets, Dina said. Though a common practice when going out of town, lowering the thermostat should be avoided in subzero temperatures, he said.
If pipes do freeze, Dina said, residents should never try to thaw them using propane or kerosene heaters -- which were linked to fires in the past month in homes in Aurora and Huntley, as well as at the Algonquin Sub Shop.
Calling a plumber is the safest option.
6. What types of fire safety equipment should I have in my house?
Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors should be placed on each level of the home and near sleeping spaces, said Acting Fire Chief Patrick Fortunato of the Hoffman Estates Fire Department. They should be checked monthly, and their batteries replaced regularly, to ensure the alarms are functioning properly.
Residents can use a certified, multipurpose fire extinguisher to eliminate fires confined to a small area, such as a wastebasket, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Extinguishers should only be attempted if the fire is not growing and if the room is not filled with smoke. The priority is getting out safely.
7. If a fire starts, how do I prevent it from spreading?
Closing doors is one of the simplest and most efficient ways to contain a fire and prevent it from spreading to the rest of the house, Fortunato said. It also helps to reduce potential smoke and fire damage, and protects exits so people can get out safely, he said.
Residents should also have an escape plan from all rooms of the house and sleep with the bedroom door closed in the event of a late-night fire, experts say.
The Hoffman Estates fire started in a second-floor bedroom Sunday, and the cause of Monday's Lake Villa fire was not yet released.