5Ws+1H: Why It Happens: Fire chief urges caution to prevent winter fires

Paden Hall, of Hearth and Pool Services, cleans a chimney.

While it might be cold outside, house fires typically increase during the winter, making it a good time for folks to prepare their homes as temperatures start to go down.

After cooking, the second-leading cause of home fires is heater-related. Because of modern technology, the chance of starting a fire in the house is not as high as it once was, but homeowners should still take the appropriate steps to keep their residences safe.

"Now it seems like everybody has either got wood pellets or natural gas-type heating," said Tahlequah Fire Department Chief Casey Baker. "So I think it's probably gotten safer throughout the years, but typically during the wintertime, we do have an influx of house fires."

Chimneys can build up with soot, so it's important that folks with fireplaces make sure to have a professional inspect and clean their chimneys every year. The TFD typically has around 10 chimney fires a year. It's also smart to have a glass or metal screen in front of fireplaces.

"That prevents the embers and sparks from jumping out and starting fires inside the house," said Baker. "You want to make sure that when you do clean out the ashes that you are putting those in some type of metal container. Believe it or not, some people put it inside a plastic bucket in the past and then catch the carpet on fire."

Ashes and coals should be completely cool before a homeowner disposes of them. Throwing them out before they've been extinguished can cause grass or other material to catch fire. Covering the container with a lid will help smother any flames.

One of the most important precautions homeowners can take, said Baker, is to make sure smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are working properly. A pack of fresh batteries will ensure those are ready to go for the winter.

"You want to make sure you keep anything that can burn - such as bedding, clothing, curtains - at least 3 feet away from any type of heaters," said Baker. "If it's a portable heater, you don't want to use extension cords and run them underneath carpets or rugs. Make sure you plug it directly into the outlet."

Portable heaters that automatically shut off when tipped over can prevent a carpet burn from turning into an engulfed home. When people leave, it's important to turn such devices off, and stoves and ovens should never be used to warm a house.

The TFD recommends people buy a fire extinguisher and put in a place everyone in the home can remember.

While they can be helpful to prevent the spread of fire, Baker said it's not worth anyone risking their life if they can't reach the extinguisher.

"If you can get to it, that's fine, but don't risk you or your family's life to try to save property," said Baker. "That's what we get paid to do. We want to make sure everybody gets out. Call us and we'll come put it out."

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