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Steps to stay cozy, safe this winter

Christmas trees, twinkling lights, space heaters and turkey fryers are all things that make the holidays warm, festive and delicious. According to the Grand Forks firefighters, these things are also the leading causes of fires during the winter a...

Christmas lights

Christmas trees, twinkling lights, space heaters and turkey fryers are all things that make the holidays warm, festive and delicious. According to the Grand Forks firefighters, these things are also the leading causes of fires during the winter and holiday season.

There tends to be more house fires in the winter and the fires tend to be more severe, said Fire Chief Pete O'Neill. And when it comes to fighting fires in the winter, that's tougher, too, he said.

Nationwide, the cooler months of the year are the ones where the risk of residential fires are greatest, not surprising because heating is a major source of residential fires, second only to cooking.

The winter months of December, January and February make up a quarter of the year but had 29 percent of the residential fires, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency data for 2005 to 2007.

The generally cooler months from November to March make up 42 percent of the year, but had 47 percent of the residential fires.


With winters longer and colder in the Grand Forks area, it's all the more important to keep fire safety in mind in the chilly months ahead.

Home heating

Fire Marshal Brandon Boespflug called special attention to heating, especially portable heaters.

They may be small but they can put out a lot of heat so it's crucial to keep them away from combustibles, he said, such as clothing, mattresses and bedding. Moving the heater closer to your bed to stay warm could end up starting a fire, he said.

He recommended the three-foot rule, keeping combustibles at least that far away from a heater.

Furnaces can be a fire hazard if they don't receive proper maintenance, according to East Grand Forks Fire Chief Randy Gust. "A clean and clear furnace is important," he said. "Keep your furnace exhaust and fresh air intakes (stacks) clear from snow and debris. This will make sure your furnace is functional."

Open flames are also a big danger in the winter, especially when homeowners fall asleep in front of a cozy fire or candle light, according to O'Neill.

The longer a fire goes undetected the more damaging and dangerous it can be, he said. "In many cases (fires go unnoticed) until it's too late and then all the sudden the whole upstairs is burning."


"A fire can double in minutes," Gust said.

Deck the halls

"When a tree starts on fire it's from what's put on the tree," said Boespflug, highlighting the need to use holiday decorations properly.

Avoid overloading outlets by connecting too many lights to them. Instead, use power strips if you need more than three strands of lights and shut off lights when you are not home.

The trees themselves are a fire risk. Artificial trees are fire retardant, and the safer option, but O'Neill said he recognizes that many people prefer real trees. A well-watered real tree is "just fine," he said.

A dry Christmas tree can go up in flames in a matter of seconds, a point O'Neill stressed with a YouTube video from the National Fire Protection Association that shows two trees side by side. One is dry and one has been watered. Each is lit. The dry tree starts on fire immediately and, within 8 seconds, the flames had reached the ceiling. In 30 seconds, the whole tree is a smoke-belching ball of fire.

Not long after that, it's just ashes. The watered tree catches on fire, but the flame sputters and eventually dies.

Cooking fires


Year-round, cooking accidents are the leading cause of residential fires. Around the holidays, though, Boespflug called attention to turkey fryers.

"It's important to read the directions, make sure the bird is completely thawed and keep it away from the home," said Boespflug. "When the hot grease mixes with that little bit of cold it can flash," he said.

He, too, stressed the point with a video, this one put out by State Farm Insurance. What happens when boiling oil and ice-cold turkey mixes is the oil boils over and spills into the open flame resulting in a big ball of fire. The flaming oil sticks on everything nearby.

If you plan to use a turkey fryer, Boespflug said, "have the means to put a turkey fryer fire out," such as a fire extinguisher meant for grease fires.

It's not just turkey fryers that are causing fires, it's cooking in general.

"Some people will just throw a turkey in the oven in the morning and then leave the house," Boespflug said. His advice: Stay in the kitchen.

Fighting fires

Once there is a fire, icy roads make it difficult for the fire truck to reach the scene quickly and the cold conspires to make firefighting a challenge, according to O'Neill.


"Water freezes, it's difficult to get to hydrants and fires can get larger just from the difficulty it takes to fight them," he said.

Firefighters do have shovels to dig out snow-covered hydrants, but Gust recommended homeowners do that themselves to save the fire department time.

Many firefighters don't just end up fighting the fire but also fatigue in the winter, according to O'Neill and Gust. When water freezes on firefighters' suits and on their equipment, it can make everything heavier and really slow them down.


n To see more winter fire statistics, go to www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/tfrs/v10i5.pdf .

n To see the turkey fryer video, go to www.YouTube.com/watch?v=hQYTMFCLy5E .

n To see the Christmas tree video, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNjO3wZDVlA .

Wothe is a UND student in the communication program. Tu-Uyen Tran contributed to this story.

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