The following, written by Patricia Murtagh, CEO of the American Red Cross in Maine, and Joseph Thomas, Maine State Fire Marshal, appeared in the December 16 issue of the Portland Press Herald
The holidays are upon us, a time to enjoy the great food, beautiful decorations and festive music of the season. There’s a chill in the air and eager anticipation of the first substantial snowfall.
At the same time, the holidays and winter cold combine to form a particularly dangerous time for fires. As you prepare to celebrate with family and friends, now is also the time to protect your home and family from the increased threat of fire that comes this time of year.
Last winter was a grim reminder of what fire can do, as 25 Mainers lost their lives. Sadly, nearly all of these could have been prevented with a few precautions.
Like many people, enjoying good food is at the top of our list, but did you know that many home fires start in the kitchen? Cooking fires are also the No. 1 cause of fire-related injuries.
- Stay in the kitchen when cooking, especially when frying, grilling or using an open flame. Keep a large lid or cookie sheet handy to smother any flames that might flare up.
- Avoid loose clothing or dangling sleeves while cooking.
- Clean cooking surfaces on a regular basis to prevent grease buildup, and check the kitchen before going to bed or leaving your home to make sure all stoves, ovens and small appliances are turned off.
- Create a kid- and pet-free zone around your stove and oven.
- Finally, keep anything that can catch fire – pot holders, oven mitts, wooden utensils, paper or plastic bags, food packaging and towels or curtains – away from cooking areas or any other appliance that generates heat.
Do you like to decorate? If so, take a few precautions to prevent fires.
- Inspect holiday lights for frayed wires, bare spots, broken or cracked sockets and excessive kinking or wear.
- Use a sturdy tree stand to prevent it from tipping over.
- Avoid overloading electrical outlets by only linking three or fewer light strands.
- Use decorations that are flame-resistant or flame-retardant, and place decorations at least 3 feet away from fireplaces, portable heaters, radiators, heat vents and candles.
Speaking of candles, we recommend artificial ones, but if you want to burn real candles, keep them 12 inches away from anything that can catch fire, such as curtains, furniture, bedding, books and flammable liquids. Keep kids and pets away from burning candles, and always extinguish candles before leaving the room or going to bed.
While we enjoyed a warm fall, Mainers know that cold weather is coming. And as you might guess, heating sources – such as fireplaces, wood stoves and portable heaters – are another leading cause of home fires.
- Never leave heating sources unattended. Turn off space heaters and make sure any embers in the fireplace are extinguished before going to bed or leaving home.
- If you use a space heater, place it on a hard, level and nonflammable surface (such as a ceramic tile floor), not on rugs or carpets or near bedding or drapes.
- When buying a space heater, look for models that shut off automatically if the heater falls over.
Finally, your home should have working smoke alarms on each floor, outside of sleeping areas and inside of each bedroom. Test smoke alarms monthly and vacuum them regularly, to keep them free of dust. Alarms are good for about 10 years, so if they’re a decade or older, it’s time to replace them. Red Cross volunteers are installing free smoke alarms, part of a nationwide campaign to reduce fire-related deaths and injuries. In the past year, these volunteers have installed more than 2,000 smoke alarms for Mainers without this critical protection.
A Red Cross survey found that most people mistakenly think they have five minutes to escape a burning home, when you likely have about two minutes. Working smoke alarms, combined with an emergency escape plan and the installation of a residential sprinkler system, greatly increase your odds of getting out alive.
Remember to practice your emergency escape plan, and include multiple ways to get out, as well as a meeting place for everyone to gather.
The holidays are about family, and we wish you and yours to enjoy the season. Most importantly, here’s to a healthy and safe 2016.