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Be sure to play it safe when it comes to fires

Fires can happen without much notice and during the holiday season it's especially important to take precautions.

Heating systems are still a leading cause in home fires and fatalities. According to the National Fire Protection Association, heating equipment - primarily space heaters and fireplaces - caused an estimated 66,100 home structure fires resulting in 480 civilian deaths, 1,660 injuries and $1.1 billion in direct property damage in 2008. Space heaters result in more fires and losses than other heating equipment.

The NFPA recommends the following to prevent fires from heaters:

n Keep things that can burn, such as paper, bedding or furniture, at least 3 feet away from heating equipment.

n Use heating equipment that has the label of a recognized testing laboratory.

n Install stationary space heating equipment, water heaters or central heating equipment according to the local codes and manufacturer's instruction. Have a qualified professional install the equipment.

n Make sure all fuel-burning equipment is vented to the outside to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. CO is created when fuels burn incompletely. CO poisoning can cause illness and even death.

n Make sure the venting for exhaust is kept clear and unobstructed. This includes removal of snow around the outlet to the outside.

n Install and maintain carbon monoxide alarms inside your home to provide early warning of carbon monoxide.

n Maintain heating equipment and chimneys by having them cleaned and inspected annually by a qualified professional.

n Turn space heaters off when you leave a room or go to sleep.

Other activities such as cooking, entertaining and decorating around the holidays present fire risks.

NFPA offers the following information to ensure a festive and safe holiday season:

n Stay in the kitchen while you're frying, grilling or broiling food. Most cooking fires involve the stovetop. Keep anything that can catch fire away from it, and turn off the stove when you leave the kitchen, even if it's for a short period of time. If you're simmering, boiling, baking or roasting food, check it regularly and use a timer to remind you that you're cooking.

n If you have an artificial tree, be sure it's labeled, certified or identified by the manufacturer as fire-retardant.

If you choose a fresh tree, make sure the green needles don't fall off when touched; before placing it in the stand, cut 1-2" from the base of the trunk. Add water to the tree stand, and be sure to water it daily.

Make sure the tree is not blocking an exit, and is at least three feet away from any heat source, like fireplaces, radiators, candles and heat vents or lights.

Use lights that have the label of an independent testing laboratory, and make sure you know whether they are designed for indoor or outdoor use.

n Consider using flameless candles, which look and smell like real candles. If you do use traditional candles, keep them at least 12" away from anything that can burn, and remember to blow them out when you leave the room or go to bed. Use candle holders that are sturdy, won't tip over and are placed on uncluttered surfaces.

Avoid using candles in the bedroom where two of five U.S. candle fires begin or other areas where people may fall asleep. Never leave a child alone in a room with a burning candle.

Let's make this a safe, fire-free holiday season by paying attention to activities that have the potential to start a fire.