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Frigid air brings home fire risks

Cooking, space heaters among common causes

With dipping temperatures come heating season, and with that comes residential fire season.

According to the United States Fire Administration, cooking is the leading cause of winter residential building fires, igniting 36 percent of the fires, followed by heating appliances at 23 percent.

Spokane Valley Fire Department Assistant Fire Marshal Bill Clifford said his department usually sees an increase in fires between October and March, but so far that hasn’t happened.

Spokane Fire Department Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer said the same about the number of fires in Spokane.

“We are about where we usually are at this time of the season,” said Schaeffer. “Any fire is devastating, of course, and we would like to have a fall or a winter where the numbers don’t go up. We had six fatalities last year; we have already had four this year.”

When the first long cold snap hits, people start using space heaters to warm their homes, and that can lead to dangerous situations.

“I think the biggest part of it is space heaters and not following the manufacturer’s recommendations of maintaining three feet of clearance,” said Clifford, adding that space heaters should always be plugged directly into an outlet or surge protector. “It’s going to draw too many amps from an electrical cord.”

Clifford said other common fire culprits are heat tape in rain gutters, candles, and electrical issues including Christmas tree lights. Furniture pushed against baseboard heaters is another concern.

Heating tape in gutters or around water pipes should be inspected frequently.

“It really should be inspected at least once a year for cracks or deterioration,” Clifford said.

At the same time, it’s a good idea to vacuum out baseboard heaters to remove toys and other debris that may have fallen in. Discoloration on a wall near a baseboard heater or on a power strip may indicate a problem.

Candles should always be carefully monitored and placed where pets can’t reach them.

“Tails can catch on fire,” Clifford said.

Chimney and fireplace fires haven’t been a big problem yet.

“But we haven’t had a long cold snap yet. That’s when people start using their fireplaces and the creosote buildup that hasn’t been properly cleaned out will heat up,” Schaeffer said.

Aside from working smoke detectors and planned escape routes, especially from upstairs bedrooms and basements, Schaeffer said a fire extinguisher kept in the kitchen is an excellent preventive measure.

“If you get one that’s ABC rated it should be able to take care of the most common residential fires, including liquid flammables,” like cooking oil, Schaeffer said.

There’s been a lot of talk about sprinkler systems in Spokane lately. When the use of a commercial building is changed, sprinklers are often required before a new business can move in, and they can be prohibitively expensive.

It’s a different story with residential sprinkler systems, Schaeffer said.

“They have become a lot cheaper, and they are not as invasive to install,” he said, adding that he’s putting a sprinkler system in his own home and that some cities now require them.

“If we had sprinklers and smoke detectors in all the homes in Spokane, it would be like having a fire department in your house,” said Schaeffer. “It’s ludicrous that they aren’t required in new construction, but there’s a lot of politics in that. We are slow to embrace new technology here.”

Pia Hallenberg can be reached at or (509) 459-5427. Nina Culver can be reached at or (509) 459-2158.