Staying Warm (Safely) During the Winter


If you think safe and warm just naturally go together, think again.

According to the United States Fire Administration (USFA), residential fires are more prevalent during the winter months than they are in the spring and summer.  The biggest reason for that is the cold weather — or, more exactly, the way that people try to keep warm in the cold weather. Using data between 2005 and 2009, the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) reported that “most home eating fire deaths and injuries … involved stationary or portable space heaters.”

Stationary or “fixed” and portable heating units were responsible for one-third of U.S. home heating fires between 2005 and 2009. The report excluded fireplaces, chimneys, chimney connectors, but did include wood stoves.


Because failure to clean and mechanical failures were cited as major factors in the ignition of fires, it is very important that you have your heat source professionally cleaned and inspected before you begin using it for the winter. The same goes for central heating units. They are designed to be and have proven to be quite safe as long as they are installed and used correctly, maintained, and regularly serviced.

 Download the NFPA’s Heating Safety Tip Sheet!

Another leading cause for fires involving heating devices was the placement of “combustibles” too near the heat source. While the word “combustible” sounds like it means “explosives,” it really means anything that can catch fire. So be sure to keep paper, clothing, wood, carpet, hair, etc., at least 3 feet away. (Depending on the type of combustible and heating unit, even 3 feet may not be enough!)

In the case of a central system, your heating unit may actually be housed in a closet-type enclosure in your home. Before you use any additional room inside that space for storage, remember that if combustibles are stored that close to the heating unit, there’s a greater chance for a fire in that area.

Always follow the directions for your particular heating device. Remember, only use the kind of fuel that your heater is designed to burn. Never use gasoline in any kind of heater and don’t use flammable liquids to start a fire in a fireplace or wood-burning stove. Some of the worst burns I’ve seen are the result of gasoline being used to start a fire.

Chimneys are another frequent location of heating-related fires. Because these fires usually occur when the resin and tar that has built up in a chimney ignites, you can prevent them by having your chimney properly cleaned. Just like your home heating system, a chimney, whether it’s used for a stove or fireplace, should be inspected and cleaned before each winter season.

Fireplaces present additional concerns because, unlike stoves, they usually don’t have a door to provide a barrier between the fire and combustibles in the room. The best fire screens will cover the whole mouth of the fireplace, but even those screens cannot block all the sparks, so it’s a good idea never to leave a fireplace unattended when in use and make sure combustibles are kept at a safe distance.

When you clean out that fireplace or woodstove, always use a metal container to carry ashes away. Never use a paper sack or cardboard box, either of which can be ignited by the tiniest hot coal. Remember that, especially in modern wood-burning stoves that are made to retain heat, hot embers can be remain in the ashes even days after the last fire.

Every year, we hear about portable heaters causing deadly fires. If a portable heater is in good condition and used properly, it’s not likely to do so. So the same precautions apply: read the directions, maintain the device as directed, and keep combustibles (including yourself) at least 3 feet away. The real problem with portable heaters is that they are portable. They can easily be placed near combustibles and are often taken into places where we don’t usually have a heater—like a garage, shop, or outbuilding. If you want a portable heater in the garage while you work on your kid’s bicycle, make sure there are no flammable liquids in the garage before you start.

Finally, never use a cooking stove to heat your house or a room in your house. Using anything to heat your home that’s not designed to do so is very risky.

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