It’s been a busy month for structure fires in Vermont.
The American Red Cross reported responding to 17 house and apartment fires in the state since Thanksgiving — and that doesn’t count the many fires in which no help is requested from disaster-services volunteers.
At one point in early December, Red Cross volunteers responded to seven fires in eight days in the state or the adjoining Upper Valley area of New Hampshire.
Firefighers, including officers in the Rutland City and Barre City fire departments, say prevention can reduce the threat.
Two fires in the Rutland area last week destroyed the homes of two families, including all of their belongings.
While those families are being supported in a variety of ways, firefighters would much prefer to prevent the fires than have to dig through charred rubble looking for hotspots.
Fire officials say many cold-weather fires have some recurring themes.
One of the prime culprits in winter fires is fireplaces and wood stoves.
Chimney fires from these devices can sometimes be extinguished with relatively minor damage.
But other times, such as the fire in Chittenden that displaced a family of three and destroyed all their possessions, the fire can rage out of control.
“Creosote is the No. 1 problem with the wood stove,” said Rutland Assistant Fire Chief Fran Robillard. “Some stoves are notorious for building up creosote in a short amount of time. It all depends on what kind of wood you’re burning and how dry it is.”
Robillard said burning wood can save money, but extra care is needed.
“People burn wood to try to save money on heating oil, but you can end up losing your whole investment — not just your heating source, but you lose your home,” Robillard said.
That happened when a fire destroyed a log-style home in Essex on Christmas Eve.
The fire is believed to have started in the chimney, according to fire investigators.
“Make sure you have a professional chimney sweep check out your chimney,” said Barre City Fire Capt. Gary Sheridan.
Other things to think about with wood stoves include properly disposing of the ashes. Only use metal containers.
“You’ve got to put your ashes into a noncombustible container and get them out of any building and 15 to 20 feet away,” Robillard said. “Wind can blow embers and they’ll stay hot for days. It’s a phenomenon many people don’t understand.”
He said to keep all paper, kindling and anything that can burn at least three feet from a fireplace or wood stove.
While many people warn about Christmas trees, Robillard said the Rutland Fire Department hasn’t had problems with them causing fires.
“I can’t remember an incident involving a Christmas tree,” he said. “We’ve just been lucky historically. If you take them outside and throw them on the burn pile they go off like a Roman candle. Don’t try to burn your Christmas tree in your fireplace.”
Electronics might seem harmless, but firefighters say plugging too many of them into one wall socket is asking for trouble.
Robillard said that with today’s entertainment centers it’s not uncommon to see a TV, DVD player, Xbox, and other items all plugged into a multi-outlet power strip.
“That just tells me you need to get an electrician in to add more receptacles,” he said.
But he knows not everyone will hire an electrician, so he said to make sure the wires are not jammed behind a couch, under a rug or otherwise constricted.
“They need air to cool,” Robillard said. “The heat builds up.”
The same can be said for space heaters, Sheridan said.
“Make sure space heaters are plugged into one outlet, not a multi-outlet power strip,” Sheridan said. “It could cause the device to fail and melt down. If it doesn’t trip the breaker, it will generally start a fire.”
And don’t run space heaters and the like when you’re asleep, Sheridan said.
Other fire safety tips include some of the old tried and true rules:
Never leave a candle unattended.
Unplug your Christmas lights before you leave or go to bed.
Check your smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors weekly.
Clear vents in case of a deep snow.
And have a fire extinguisher handy.
Some small fires can be snuffed out quickly if an extinguisher is handy. Sheridan said the little ones that are widely available are one-shot options for a grease fire on the stove, but won’t do much more than perhaps help you get out of the house.
A better option might be a 10-pound dry chemical, or ABC, fire extinguisher. They’re bigger and heavier, but will be more useful in a fire, Sheridan said.
Finally, have an evacuation plan, a meeting place, and practice.
“If you do happen to have a fire, it’s good to have a meeting point so everybody has a place to meet up,” Sheridan said. “And practice fire drills. We practice fire drills at schools and work but we don’t always do it at home. It’s one of those things that people don’t think about until it’s too late.”
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