Winter always marks a rise in structure fires as people gather indoors for the holidays, cooking more, staying warm, and raising Christmas trees, the loveliest fire risk of them all.
The numbers of fires this season in Grays Harbor County are already higher in places than usual. Here’s how to avoid adding to them.
“We probably have up to three-four (structure fires) in the wintertime,” said East Grays Harbor Fire and Rescue firefighter and public information officer Ali Sinclair. “We’re already two-in at this point.”
The Aberdeen Fire Department is also seeing numbers coming in over the average, with 12 fires since the beginning of October, a period that usually sees six, said fire services specialist Mitch Housden. Last week, three structure fires in Aberdeen and Hoquiam erupted in less than 24 hours.
“As we have the weather cooling, things are nice and wet so we’re less concerned with our dunes catching fire with outdoor activity and we’re shifting focus to making sure people are safe in their own homes,” said Kara McDermott with the Ocean Shores Fire Department. “It’s a lot of kitchen fires. A lot of time, it’s people walking away from their stoves not realizing its on.”
Kitchens are the number one source of fires inside homes, as banners across the AFD’s stations will boldly attest. A fire that broke out in Elma on Tuesday morning was one, resulting in the mobile home being destroyed and the family displaced.
“Don’t fry your turkey inside. Make sure your turkey is thawed and dried before you put it in,” said EGHFR firefighter and training officer Kiala Bentow. “Make sure you’re cleaning your oven and stovetops often. Double check that you turn your oven and stove off after using.”
Built-up residue on stovetops or ovens can combust and cause a fire, Bentow said. Caution should be taken when frying a turkey to do it outside, on a noncombustible surface such as a driveway, away from any overhangs that could also catch fire such as a porch roof.
Appliances that are getting long in the tooth should be minded with special care, McDermott said — there isn’t one in particular that OSFD has seen many problems with, but aging wires and internals can create issues.
“I don’t think there’s necessarily a particular appliance that goes, but any appliance that is aging should be viewed with a degree of suspicion,” McDermott said.
Heaters and wires
Indoor heaters, on the other hand, are viewed with distinct and particular suspicion, Sinclair said.
“We had two last week. One was a faulty heat source and one was a portable heater too close to clothes,” Sinclair said. “We don’t typically have two back to back.”
Portable heaters can be risk factors, especially when placed too close to clothes, drapes, or furniture, McDermott said.
“I like to give a quick peak, make sure people are moving things away from their heaters,” McDermott said. “It’s a good practice to take a lap around the house and make sure your vents and heaters are clear.”
Plugging heaters into anything other than directly into the wall, such as power strips, can also cause fires, Housden said.
“Don’t be using (space heaters) on extension cords,” Sinclair said. “We’ll see them plugged into power strips and they’ll overload the power strips.”
Plugging extension cords or power strips into other extension cords or power strips, or daisy chaining them, can also substantially increase the risk of fire, Bentow said.
Fireplaces and carbon monoxide
A fireplace, perhaps unsurprisingly, can be a fire risk, particularly if the chimney hasn’t been cleaned regularly. There are businesses in the county that offer such services, McDermott said.
“People are firing up their fireplaces for the first time in a while. They need to be cleaned,” McDermott said. “A lot of people use wood burning as their heat source. It’s a good idea to keep on top of that.”
The rapid onset of the cold after an unusually warm late summer and autumn means many people are firing up fireplaces or other heat sources, Sinclair said.
“It changed really fast,” Sinclair said. “It was immediately cold and rainy.”
EGHFR has seen the use of improvised heating sources, such as smudge pots or heat lamps intended for livestock use, as heat sources for residences. The department strongly discourages these for safety reasons, from risk of carbon monoxide poisoning with smudge pots to a lack of safety cut-outs with livestock heat lamps, all of which can lead to death or injury.
Sinclair added the department discourages most stiffly the use of generators or grills inside, as carbon monoxide poisoning, which occurs as a byproduct of combustion, can be difficult to detect and will eventually lead to death.
“I’m never not going to recommend people have a fire extinguisher nearby,” McDermott said. “If you have a wood-burning fireplace, have a carbon monoxide detector. Those things go hand in hand.”
Hot for the holidays
Christmas trees are best watered frequently lest they become festive firetraps, according to every single department interviewed.
“You want to make sure they stay really well watered. I would not recommend running their Christmas lights all the time,” McDermott said. “Be careful.”
McDermott said even though the station’s tree is artificial, she periodically checks on it to make sure the lights aren’t warming it too far. Sinclair also suggested not keeping space heaters too close to the Christmas tree.
Other best practices
Smoke detectors are faithful friends who’s existence saves lives in Grays Harbor every year, such as just weeks ago when a fire alarm woke sleeping residents at the Harbor Resort deep at night before a fire utterly consumed the building.
They have a useful lifespan, however — it’s worth replacing them about every 10 years, McDermott said.
“If you’re changing batteries and it won’t stop going off, it might have aged out,” McDermott said.
Shutting doors when people are asleep can also save lives, creating firebreaks that give people time to escape.
“We really push for people to close their doors at night when they’re sleeping,” McDermott said. “We’ve seen a ton of it on scene. It does a tremendous amount to provide survivable space.”
Open floor plans and differences in material in more recent construction has also played a role in the speed and quality of fires, McDermott said.
“Things go quick. We know that fire growth is exponentially faster than it has been in previous decades,” McDermott said. “What we’ve put inside our homes has changed. Since we’ve gone more into synthetics, plastics, those kinds of things, they burn fast, they burn smokey.”
Planning ahead for an emergency can save lives, McDermott said. The fire department also encourages making sure all doors are unblocked, even if they’re not in use, so that firefighters breaching in don’t get hung up on debris.
“Every year, nationwide, we have a theme. This year was: fire won’t wait, plan your escape,” McDermott said. “We know, the way things grow, fire can overtake a person so, so quickly. Get out and stay out.”
Discussing plans with children can also help them to override instincts that may be less than helpful during an emergency. Having a place to meet outside the house means a family can rapidly account for all family members, saving the fire department from looking for someone who’s not inside a burning structure.
“Have your egress plan. Keep lots of escape routes available,” McDermott said. “Go over it with your kids. Kids’ instincts, when things are scary, is to hide.”
Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.