By CARL SMITH
As the temperature drops and holiday decorations are hung in local homes, Starkville Fire Chief Rodger Mann says he is sure of one thing: He expects more and more fires to occur over winter than any other time of the year.
“This is our run season,” Mann said. “When the seasons change and the holidays approach, we are out there more often.”
Two types of structure fires — winter and holiday — occur over this part of the year, Starkville Fire Marshal Mark McCurdy said.
As the air cools, residents use sources of heat for comfort in their homes. Winter structure fires, McCurdy says, are those which occur due to the improper usage of heating elements.
On Nov. 17, firefighters rescued two pets from a trailer fire, and two Brookeville Garden apartments were destroyed by a Monday fire. Both fires were caused by the improper use of heating elements inside the respective homes, SFD officials said.
“Our best firefighting method is preventing fires from happening. The rule of thumb is nothing combustible within 3 feet of any heating source,” McCurdy said. “And when I say ‘combustible,’ I mean anything — beds, couches, curtains.”
Those who choose to use portable heating sources, such as kerosene heaters, should always use them on a safe, level surface away from anything combustible, McCurdy said. Heaters which use kerosene or other liquids as fuel should be re-filled outside, not inside a home.
“I would tell anyone who buys a heater like that to make sure they look for one with an emergency shutoff or tip-over sensor,” he said. “A portable heater that has tipped over becomes an even larger danger if it does not have that feature.”
Homeowners or renters with wood stoves or fireplaces, McCurdy said, should always ensure they have a well-ventilated and properly cleaned exit to the outside of the building. Chimney tar buildup is a common cause of chimney fires.
“A good way to think about it is this: Always have your chimney professionally cleaned before the first cold snap of each winter,” McCurdy said. “By doing so, you’re ready — safe — for winter.”
McCurdy said fireplaces should also have protective screens to ensure embers do not ignite nearby carpet or other flammable material.
The number of structure fires caused by smokers also rises in the winter, McCurdy said, because many people refuse to brave the cold for a cigarette.
“Those who choose to smoke inside of their homes should take precautions,” he said. “Make sure a cigarette is out when you extinguish it and definitely do not throw a lit cigarette in the garbage. Smokers should also never smoke in bed or fall asleep with a lit cigarette in the bedroom or any part of the house.”
As Christmas quickly approaches, more and more Starkville residents will buy Christmas trees and decorate their homes with lights and candles. These decorations, McCurdy said, can pose dangers if proper care and maintenance is not used.
“The biggest problem with holidays is when people overload electrical sockets for Christmas lights and other decorations,” he said. “If you’re going to have decorations which use electricity, always plug them into a surge protector instead of a simple, multi-plug device. By using a multi-plug without a tripping device, you’re overloading your wall sockets and creating a hazard.”
Those who choose to buy real Christmas trees should always keep it watered and its bristles away from any heating elements, while McCurdy said people who purchase artificial trees should seek those made out of flame retardant material.
“Flame-retardant, artificial trees take a much hotter flame to burn and also take considerably longer to ignite,” he said. “Also, be sure to check strands of Christmas lights to make sure they’re not frayed and the internal wiring is not exposed.”
Residents should always have functioning smoke detectors — in common areas, on each level of the house and inside and outside of every bedroom — a small fire extinguisher and an exit plan in case of emergencies. Working smoke detectors allow for occupants to safely exit a home and quickly notify the fire department.
“Our firefighters have about a three- or four-minute response time in the city from our stations to the scene, but fires basically double in size every single minute they burn,” McCurdy said.
If asked, SFD and Oktibbeha County volunteer firefighters will install smoke detectors in homes throughout the county, McCurdy said.
Both McCurdy and Mann said a common-sense approach to fire safety can help keep families safe over the holidays. Education, Mann says, is the biggest key to changing attitudes toward safety.
“Mississippi is typically in the top three states for fire-related deaths in the nation,” Mann said. “Simply paying attention to what you do will help. We need the public to change its habits. That’s the only way we can prevent structure fires during the winter.”