By Nathan Pfau, Army Flier Staff WriterNovember 16, 2017
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- As temperatures fall and the holiday season rolls around, one of the last things on people's minds is fire safety, but installation safety officials want to remind people to stay safe when getting in the holiday spirit.
Some of the leading causes of fires during the holidays can be attributed to decorations, candles, cooking and Christmas trees, according to John Ahern, fire prevention inspector, who said people should take special care when setting up for the holiday season.
With Thanksgiving around the corner, people across the country will be cooking up their feasts for friends and family to enjoy, and with that increased cooking comes increased opportunities for fire hazards, said Ahern.
Between 2011 and 2015, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 170,000 home structure fires that involved cooking equipment, said the fire prevention inspector, adding that nearly half of all reported home fires were caused by cooking. Unattended cooking was the leading factor in the fires.
Although the majority of the fires occurred on ranges or stovetops, many in recent years are being attributed to turkey fryers, which are becoming increasingly popular, said Ahern.
"When using (a turkey fryer), people want to make sure to follow the directions," he said. "Thaw out the turkeys completely and make sure not to overfill the fryer with oil. Also, make sure to use them a good distance away from the home."
Many people tend to make the mistake of using the fryers in too close of a proximity to the home, which can cause devastating damage in the event of a grease fire from the fryer, he said, adding that one of the biggest mistakes people make when a grease fire occurs is adding water.
"Never put water on a grease fire -- that is the biggest thing," said the fire prevention inspector. Adding grease to the fire causes the oil to expand and erupt rather than smother the flames. Instead, people should have an extinguisher handy, he said.
In addition to cooking fires, heating equipment, such as space heaters, has been known to be a leading cause fires, said Ahern. Many space heaters utilize exposed coils to give off heat and if set next to flammable materials, such as a curtain or a tree, a fire can occur.
Half of home heating equipment fires are reported during the months of December, January and February, and Ahern offers up some simple steps to prevent most heating-related fires from happening.
• Keep anything that can burn at least three feet away from heating equipment, like the furnace, fireplace, wood stove or portable space heater.
• Have a three-foot "kid-free zone" around open fires and space heaters.
• Never use your oven to heat your home.
• Have a qualified professional install stationary space heating equipment, water heaters or central heating equipment according to the local codes and manufacturer's instructions.
• Have heating equipment and chimneys cleaned and inspected every year by a qualified professional.
• Remember to turn portable heaters off when leaving the room or going to bed.
• Always use the right kind of fuel, specified by the manufacturer, for fuel burning space heaters.
• Make sure the fireplace has a sturdy screen to stop sparks from flying into the room. Ashes should be cool before putting them in a metal container. Keep the container a safe distance away from your home.
• Test smoke alarms at least once a month.
Blazes caused by decorations are another cause of structural fires in homes. Between 2009-2013, fire departments responded to an average of 9,300 home structure fires a year that were caused by candles; and between 2010-2014, an average of 210 fires per year began with Christmas trees, said Ahern.
"With candles, it's more about the proximity to other items that could catch on fire, and leaving them unattended," said the fire prevention inspector, so people should make sure that candles are out of proximity of anything flammable, and are blown out when not in the room.
Light strands that are used for decorations can also be a fire hazard when used improperly, said Ahern. Each strand has a recommended number of strands that can be plugged together, and by overloading the wiring creates potential for an electrical fire. Coupled with a Christmas tree, the hazard can be devastating.
"If you've ever had a real Christmas tree then you know it's going to get dried out," he said. "The needles falling off the tree is an indication that the tree is drying out. You can keep it watered all you want but it's not going to be like a root system -- it won't soak up as much water as it actually needs.
"For those people who are putting their tree up early and leaving it up past New Years, when you plug in a lot of lights on it that are overloaded, then you could run into a real problem," he continued. "You should turn the Christmas tree lights off as much as possible, especially if you have a real tree. You don't have to leave those lit all the time. The best thing to do is unplug everything when they're not in use."
Ahern said that people should also inspect the lights for frayed wiring if the strands have been reused over the years. With age, the strands can become frayed and cause a fire hazard if the wires are exposed, he said.
Artificial trees are an option people should consider to help curb the threat of fires, he said, adding that each artificial tree has built in fire resistance, and although that may degrade over time, is still a better option for safety than a real tree.
By taking preventative measures, Ahern said that people can ensure a safe holiday season.