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Put a Freeze on Winter Fires

Monday, January 11, 2021 | 10:43am

Throughout my years in fire service, I have worked many winter seasons as a firefighter and seen the impact of home fires firsthand. While the winter season brings an increase in utilizing fireplaces to heat your home, it also brings an increase in fatal home fires. Unfortunately, from November 2019 through the end of February 2020, 33 Tennesseans lost their lives in accidental residential structure fires. The Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s office asks that you continue to be fire aware to ensure your family is safe through the winter season.

Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s data shows that Tennessee has averaged almost four fire deaths per year during the second week of January since 2015. When the temperature drops below 32 degrees, Tennesseans are 40 percent more likely to have a home fire than if it were above 32 degrees. When temperatures drop below 15 degrees, structure fires are twice as likely to occur than when temperatures remain above 32 degrees. During these cold winter months, I urge Tennesseans to focus on home fire safety tips during what has historically been the most tragic and deadly week for fire-related incidents in the Volunteer State.

Heating equipment is the third leading cause of home fire deaths both nationally and in Tennessee. Specifically, portable heaters were responsible for 19 fire deaths from 2015-2019 in our state. Tennessee averages 53 portable heating fires resulting $1.7 million dollars in reported property loss each year. Remember to please keep anything that can burn at least three feet away from heating equipment including fireplaces, wood stoves and space heaters, and turn off your portable heaters when you leave your room or before going to bed. Lastly, ensure you have working smoke alarms inside each sleeping area, on every level of the home and that they are tested regularly.

Nothing takes the chill off winter like the light and heat of a fire on your hearth. According to state fire data from 2015 – 2019, wood-burning stoves or fireplaces were involved in 8.96% of heating fires but accounted for 45.5% of heating fire deaths, and are disproportionately deadly when compared to other heating fires. Additionally, fires involving wood-burning heating equipment caused over $5 million in loss during that time period. Therefore, be sure you are installing wood-burning stoves according to the manufacturer’s instructions or hire a professional to install the unit. Additionally, ensure that all fuel-burning equipment is vented to the outside and the flue is also cleaned regularly. If you decide to turn on your fireplace, be sure to keep fuel away from anything that can burn, like rugs, clothing and pets, and be sure to use a fire screen to keep embers and logs from escaping. Lastly, make sure all embers are fully extinguished before you and your loved ones turn in for the night.

Unfortunately, an ember from an operating fireplace landed on a live Christmas tree and was to blame for the deadly house fire that killed multiple members of a Tennessee family in December of 2019. Though the Christmas tree was the main source of fuel, the fire also quickly consumed wrapped presents and living room furniture. There was only one smoke alarm located on a wall on the second floor where the family was sleeping, and no working smoke alarms on the first floor where the deadly fire started and continued to spread. As a reminder, it is vitally important to have working smoke alarms on every level of your home to ensure timely notification of an emergency so that you and your loved ones can escape.  

Keep these fire aware tips in mind and share with your friends and family to put a “freeze” on winter fires in Tennessee. On behalf of the entire State Fire Marshal’s Office, we want to wish you and your loved ones a safe winter season.

Gary Farley serves as the Assistant Commissioner of Fire Prevention at the Department of Commerce and Insurance and Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office.

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