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Holiday season brings fire dangers

Long brushes are used to knock creosote from the inside of the chimney so it doesn't cause a fire. John Graham uses a rope anchored below to help climb up slippery roofs. According to the National Fire Protection Association, failing to clean chimneys accounted for 30 percent of house fires. Lorie Skarpness/Enterprise.

During the holiday season, a crackling fire, twinkling lights and decorated trees make the season bright. They also create the potential for a house fire.

The number one cause of holiday fires is cooking, according to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). Park Rapids Fire Chief Don Hoffman, who also owns Hoffman Electric, said that is true locally as well.

"Using improper cords is also big for electric fires, along with Christmas trees and chimney fires," he said. "Also, don't use the multi-cord power strips. If you can plug in multiple cords to a power strip, their rating is normally 15 amps. You could plug in well more than what that cord is capable of carrying."

Hoffman recommends plugging things directly into outlets when possible. New homes are required to have arc-fault breakers. "They are designed to see arcing of electricity and protect your house from fire," he said. "If you have an appliance that has something wrong with it, it will detect that small arc and trip the breaker to the outlet."

Hoffman said wiring in older homes may not be sufficient for an arc-fault outlet, so homeowners should work with an electrician if planning upgrades. "Otherwise, the outlet might fail because of the wiring in the house," he said.

Ground Fault Interrupters are another option. "They are designed to protect your life," he said.

Wintertime tips

"I would absolutely recommend against space heaters," Hoffman said. "I think any kind of portable heating appliance should not be used."

He recommends upgrading heating systems so they are able to heat the entire home, along with insulating to retain heat.

Christmas trees are another potential fire hazard. It takes less than 30 seconds for a dry tree to engulf a room in flames. The USFA recommends buying a fresh tree with intact needles, getting a fresh cut on the trunk and watering it every day. Trees should be kept away from heat sources.

The USFA report also states that there are four times more candle fires in December compared with other months. They recommend a foot of space between a candle and anything that can burn, setting candles on sturdy bases, covering them with hurricane globes and never leaving candles unattended.

"The thing that is pushed every fall during fire prevention is for every family to have a fire emergency plan," Hoffman said. "During the winter, the family meeting place should be indoors at a neighbor's or another outbuilding in the area that provides shelter from the elements.

Creosote can cause chimney fires

Creosote buildup from soot that hardens on chimney walls is another concern in this area, where many people burn wood in stoves or furnaces. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), unclean chimneys are a leading cause of structure fires. Their 2016 report shows that home heating equipment accounted for 16 percent of home fires and 19 percent of home fire deaths from 2009 to 2013.

Burning dry seasoned hardwood at high heat with the flue open, so it burns hot and fast, helps reduce creosote buildup, while smoldering fires create creosote.

The USFA website says if there is 1/4 inch of creosote or more, the fireplace or woodstove should not be used until it has been cleaned. Hoffman said there aren't as many fires related to burning wood as there used to be.

"When I started with the fire service in 1987, I'd say that chimney fires and wood-origin fires probably were 20 to 25 percent of the calls that we got," he said. "We don't get that many anymore. I think there are a couple of reasons for that. Number one, I think, our homes are newer and the chimneys are better than they were. And people are more aware, which is a big thing."

Chimney inspections

Failing to clean chimneys accounted for 30 percent of house fires according to the NFPA. They recommend an annual chimney inspection.

John Graham owns Graham Outdoors and provides free chimney inspections. He has been cleaning chimneys for 20 years.

"We do a visual inspection first," he said. "We get up on the roof and take the cap off. We look down with a light, and if we have to we run a camera down the chimney. Half of the chimneys we look at don't even need to be swept. The biggest thing we look for is damaged chimneys. If it is damaged, it needs to be repaired or replaced."

Graham said he doesn't see much benefit in creosote-burning sticks or logs. "Basically, what they do is burn your chimney hot, and if you're doing things properly you should burn it hot every day for 30 minutes," he said.

Graham said more creosote builds up when people start a fire to warm up their house and then let it go out slowly or smolder.

"If you use the fire as a heat source, the chimney stays warm all of the time and you get a lot less buildup," he said. "If you have hot and then cold and hot and then cold, as your chimney cools the smoke slows down going up and out of your chimney. The pipes clean themselves because they are closer to the fire and burn a lot hotter. Mostly, when the chimney is plugged, it's near the top."

He said that residents of homes closed for the winter may return to find wood ducks nesting in the chimney.

"When I first started doing this, I had a black lab that I had trained to go into people's houses, because when you open up the chimney in the fireplace the wood ducks would come out, and she would go in and catch them and bring them out to me and then I would turn them loose," he said. "I've had that happen countless times. Everybody needs a chimney cap with a screen."


Tips for holiday safety

• When hanging Christmas lights, do not use nails, which conduct electricity. Instead, use UL rated plastic staples or hooks.

• Outdoor lights should be up for 90 days or less. Store inside so sunlight and weather won't deteriorate the cords. The same is true for extension cords used to plug in cars.

• Before putting lights on the Christmas tree, check the strands and discard any with cracked wires or broken sockets. Check whether the cord is designated for indoor or outdoor use and UL rated. Never connect more than three strands.

• When children are visiting, make sure lighters and matches are put away in a safe place out of their sight and reach.

• Use carbon monoxide detectors and smoke detectors with good batteries.