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Editorial: A seasonal fire safety reminder

It’s early in the heating season, but the damage toll is mounting. Earlier this fall, a fire claimed the life of an elderly Tuftonboro woman and an apartment building fire left 30 Manchester residents homeless. Last week, fires blamed on wood stoves destroyed two homes in Canterbury. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the last two fires, but residents and firefighters may not be as lucky next time.

It’s easy to get complacent about fire safety. After all, who doesn’t know that you shouldn’t store paint cans near the furnace, run lamp cords under rugs, leave a burning candle unattended or stack newspapers next to the wood stove? But all four are a common cause of house fires.

With heating oil still selling for nearly $4 per gallon, many people are using alternate sources of heat, including wood stoves and space heaters. According to the state fire marshal, home heating devices that burn solid fuel have been the leading cause of house fires for nearly two decades. Space heaters also present a danger. Nationally, they are blamed for more than three-quarters of all fire fatalities. So even if you have heard it before and know all of this already, please take a few minutes to walk about your home to spot potential trouble and possibly prevent a tragedy.

Space heaters draw a lot of electricity, in most cases as much as running a dozen or more 100-watt bulbs. Some wiring circuits, particularly the ceramic knob-and-tube wiring that can still be found in older homes, may not be up to the job and could overheat, starting a fire.

Needless to say, combustible material should not be kept within 3 feet of a space heater. And heaters should be turned off or, better yet, unplugged so a child or a pet rubbing against them can’t turn them on. As for unvented heaters burning kerosene or propane, remember: New Hampshire law prohibits their use in bedrooms and bathrooms.

This is the Christmas-light season, which usually makes for a spider web of extension cords. Long strings of standard lights draw a lot of power and can overload circuits. As with the use of all extension cords, to prevent overheating make sure the gauge of the cord – the thickness of the copper wire – is more than adequate for the load that will flow through it. Though it comes with an added up-front cost, consider LED lights. They draw far less power and last indefinitely. Speaking of cords, check to make sure none are running beneath rugs, which hide damage to the cord that might ignite the rug.

Check the cellar, furnace room or wherever the main heating source is located. Have cans of paint or other flammable materials been stored nearby, where fumes leaking from them could possibly ignite?

Are the fire extinguishers – which should be in the kitchen, garage, workshop and near the wood stove – ready for action, or have they lost their usefulness? Are the smoke detectors, and ideally a carbon monoxide detector, working?

Has the furnace or boiler been cleaned and inspected, or is that still on the to-do list?

Are candles, oil lamps and other sources of open flame, which of course are never left unattended, pet proof? We watched in horror once from across the room when a cat leapt up next to a burning oil lamp and rubbed against it, sending it crashing to the floor.

Is the area around the wood stove clear, the stove on an inflammable hearth, and the stove pipe in good repair and secured at its joints with sheet metal screws? Is the stove itself uncracked and the gasket around its door tight-fitting? A simple walkabout with fire prevention in mind won’t take long, and it could save a home or a life.

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