Keep Fires in their Place: Fireplace Safety

By Tom Kiurski

Warming up by the fireplace conjures up many fond memories, such as playing in the snow and decorating the Christmas tree. Where I live in Michigan, we are all too familiar with the warm feeling a nice fire in a fireplace can bring. But safety must be the order of the day, since heating equipment is a leading cause of home fires during the months of December, January and February. Home heating fires in those months in second only to cooking fires, which is always at the top of the list. Your residents need to be reminded about a few safety tips in regards to fireplaces for the cold winter months.

In the year 2002, heating equipment was involved in an estimated 45, 500 home structure fires in the United States, according to the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association). These fires caused an estimated 220 civilian fire deaths, 990 civilian fire injuries and caused $449 million in direct property damage. Direct property damage is limited to damage caused by the fire, and does not include expenses associated with alternate living arrangements, replacement clothing and food costs. These statistics make a nice introduction to a segment of your talk on fireplace safety. Explain fully the difference between direct and indirect costs of fire.

Fireplaces and chimneys rank first in the number of fires among types of heating equipment. Most of these were caused by creosote build-up in chimneys. If your residents use their fireplaces, they should have it cleaned and inspected at least once a year by a licensed professional.

Portable and fixed space heaters, including wood stoves, caused a disproportionate share of the home heating fire deaths. Space haters were involved in 25% of the home heating fires but 74% of the deaths. Space heaters need a 3-foot space in front of the unit where combustible are kept clear. Newer space heaters have “tip-over” switches, so that if the unit gets knocked over, it turns off. This is a nice feature to mention to your group if they are considering buying a new one.

Fireplaces should use only dry wood, and the screen should be pulled in the closed position, to keep any sparks or embers away from combustibles. The 3-foot clearance should also be observed with the fireplace.

Fireplaces can be a great gathering place in the home. Take a few extra minutes to ensure a safe atmosphere for your community. They’ll be glad you did.

Tom Kiurski is a lieutenant, a paramedic, and the director of fire safety education for Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue. His book, Creating a Fire-Safe Community: A Guide for Fire Safety Educators (Fire Engineering, 1999) is a guide for bringing the safety message to all segments of the community efficiently and economically.

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