For months, many Americans have complained about the harsh winter and its many inconveniences — from huge, frigid snowbanks to backed-up traffic. An even more serious problem has emerged as Americans try to bundle up against the cold: federal officials and the Red Cross report that nearly 900 people in the United States were killed during this winter’s deep freeze.
Home fires kill as many as 2,500 Americans every year. But while the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has stated that most fatal blazes are caused by cooking and smoking, the organization adds that more than a third of all house fire deaths occur in December, January, and February, as people over-utilize electrical circuits, run improperly-installed heaters, and load up wood stoves to stay warm. This year was no exception: the Red Cross reports that requests to help those affected by fires have increased from 5,000 this fall to 8,000 in January, resulting in more than $1 million in additional aid. Even worse, federal officials reported that at least 899 people have been killed in house fires since December 1. While less than the 990 deaths that occurred in the same period last year, fire departments say this year’s cold has taken its toll: the bitter temperatures have lead to slippery sidewalks and frozen hydrants, while the heavy snows often hide these same hydrants in their drifts.
These problems, coupled with an increased risk of fire, has caused incidents across the United States: for example, in mid February, a house fire in a Detroit suburb killed a family of four, including two young boys, only days before another fire displaced 15 residents from an apartment building on the city’s east side. Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, an elderly woman and her son died after harsh winds made it difficult for firefighters to use ladders. And in Chicago, a man died on March 4 after jumping from the third floor of a condominium to escape a blaze that took almost 100 firefighters nearly four hours to control.
In light of these and other incidents, authorities are recommending that Americans take steps to reduce fire risk in their homes. Firstly, all potential sources of fuel, including paper, clothing, rugs, bedding, curtains and drapes should be kept at least three feet away from space heaters, stoves, or fireplaces. Likewise, these sources of heat should never be left unattended, especially if you are going to sleep or leaving your home. Secondly, all heating sources should be carefully maintained to prevent accidents: stoves, fireplaces, chimneys, and furnaces should be professionally inspected at least once a year, and a glass or metal fire screen should be used to catch sparks and rolling logs in a fireplace. Similarly, look for space heaters that shut off automatically if they fall over and make sure to place the device on a level, hard, and nonflammable surface that could not allow a fire spread to your bedding or window treatments. Finally, experts say that cooking stoves and ovens should never be used to heat a home.
Some of these steps may be more difficult for people with hanging wall treatments and other decor, especially if you live in an apartment where you cannot always change certain aspects. Fortunately, there are a number of basic design tips every homeowner can follow to reduce their risk of fire in addition to the recommendations above.
As temperatures across the U.S. begin to rise, the number of fatal fires will hopefully begin to decrease. However, we may only be just beginning to grasp the full effect of the cold, harsh winter: federal officials say official statistics on the number of deadly blazes are still being compiled.