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'Common sense' is the key to preventing fires
COUNTY — Following a few "common sense" procedures can prevent fires that can become uncontrollable or result in fatalities, say experienced fire personnel.
The most important and perhaps easiest procedure fire experts recommend is changing the batteries in your smoke detector regularly.
"It can save lives," said Maine Fire Marshal Joseph E. Thomas.
"Smoke detectors are your most early warning that there is a fire," he explained.
"Detectors often react to a smoke condition before a person can see or smell it," he said, which is why changing the batteries and making sure it operates correctly is imperative.
Without the alert of a fire alarm, people who succumb to fire at night while they're sleeping can die from exposure to the by-products of combustion, Thomas explained.
"The tragedy we see is that in many cases with fatal fires, we find a smoke detector within the premises only to determine there was no battery in it to operate," Thomas said.
"We recommend that everybody changes their smoke detectors when they change their clocks forward or backwards," said Paris Firefighter Joe Cormier.
He recommends batteries be replaced twice a year. Oxford Fire Captain Shawn Cordwell stresses they be installed on every level of the home, especially near sleeping areas.
"The single best way to prevent fire deaths is the smoke detectors," he said.
Chimney, stove fires
In Oxford County last year a majority of fires responded to by firefighters were confined to a chimney or flue, according to a report from the Maine Fire Marshal's Office.
Those fires especially happen in the winter time, reported Cormier.
"Chimney fires are obviously a seasonal thing," he said, "but fire-related in the winter time, yes, absolutely, chimney fires are probably our number one incident."
Of approximately 637 fire calls documented in Oxford County, 25 of those calls were chimney fires, Thomas reported. He said in many cases chimney fires can often turn into full-blown structure fires or result in extreme smoke damage to the home.
Last year, 386 fires statewide began with an improperly cleaned chimney, Thomas reported.
How often a chimney or woodstove is cleaned also depends on what kind of wood is being burned and how much, Cordwell explained.
"If you burn green wood that is wet, or a pine-type wood, you are going to need to clean your chimney every two weeks," he said.
"This time of year it's worse, because people aren't burning it [wood] fully," he said, which causes more creosote build-up, versus the middle of January when the woodstove's damper is wide open and "burning really hot."
"We will start to see more chimney fires in the coming weeks because of that," Cordwell said.
Heating-related fires are attributed to improper installation of alternative heating appliances, such as wood stoves, as well as "insufficient clearance of combustible materials," Thomas said.
Frequently, people leave paper products too close to a stove or other heating device without thinking that it may catch fire, Thomas reported.
Norway Fire Chief Dennis Yates estimated that around 15 percent of chimney fires in Norway develop into structure fires. He said chimneys should be checked on a yearly basis by a certified inspector to ensure they are up to code and safe.
Local firefighters agree that improper disposal of ashes from woodstoves is a huge concern in their towns.
"Certainly woodstoves are one of the major issues that we run into every year, over and over again," said Oxford's Cordwell.
Nine times out of 10 "it's a maintenance issue," Cordwell said. Sometimes, he said, people will dump ashes directly onto dry grass, creating a small grass fire that may make its way to the home.
According to Thomas, fires that occur from improper removal and disposal of woodstove ashes occurs "all too often." He reminds that all it really takes is "common sense" to put out the flames completely before storing it in a container of any sort.
"Ashes removed from a stove while cleaning should be placed in a metal bucket or container," Thomas recommends.
"[It should not be] placed in any kind of combustible container such as plastic bucket, or surely not in a paper bag," which unfortunately does happen, he said.
"Don't ever just assume that it's [the fire] out," said Yates. "Take your time, dispose of ashes properly and keep everything away from the woods."
Thomas said folks often remove ashes without realizing that the coals inside the pile may still be hot. Once removed from the stove, he said, the container of ashes should be placed a good distance away from the dwelling until complete disposal can take place.
The majority of fires in Norway are started by electrical causes, said Fire Chief Dennis Yates.
Yates, who is also a licensed electrical inspector, estimates that about 30 percent of all fires across the entire nation are caused by faulty electrical wiring.
A majority of structure fires in Paris firefighters respond to in the summer months have electricity-related causes.
Electric-related fires are extremely difficult to detect, said Cordwell, because they often begin inside of walls.
According to the state fire marshal's report, in 2012, 239 (.39 percent) of all fire calls statewide were for electric wiring/equipment problems. In Oxford County, three (.47 percent) of fires were electrical-related.
In 2011, the numbers were higher. In Oxford County, eight (1.11 percent) of fires were electrical in nature. Statewide, 349 (.43 percent) of fires started with faulty electrical.
The numbers may not tell the whole story, however – the report is based on individual reporting from local fire departments and is incomplete.
According to the report, of the 637 calls in Oxford County last year, 88 were for structure fires or vehicle fires; 249 were rescue calls and 81 ended up being false alarms. In addition, 139 of those calls required mutual aid.
Of the 719 incidents reported to the state in 2011, 94 were actual fire calls, including 21 building fires and 35 chimney fires; 198 were rescue calls and 97 were false calls. Mutual aid was provided for 192 of the county's total calls.
According to Thomas, the fire marshal's report is not a representation of the actual number of calls that occurred in Oxford County in 2012.
He said the office is still receiving submissions from fire departments in Oxford County, so the number of total fire incidents is expected to be much larger.
"It is still a work in progress," Thomas said.
In 2012, firefighters responded to 61,476 total calls statewide, Thomas reported, down from 2011.
According to the fire marshal's report, in 2011 there were 81,942 total fire calls, of which there were 583 building fires; 515 cooking-related fires; and 428 chimney/flue fires. Of the total fires, 5,109 required mutual aid.
The most common causes, Thomas said, are cooking- and heating-related. In 2012, 392 of all fire calls were caused during cooking. In addition, there were 513 building fires (down from 2011).
In 2011, 515 of the total fires reported were cooking- or heating-related.
Cooking-related fires, said Thomas, are generally from leaving things unattended, such as when cooking oil becomes too hot. In some cases, people wearing loose clothing while cooking have been known to catch themselves on fire, Thomas said.
"People just need to be careful ... when playing with fire," agrees Chief Yates.
"You can't teach common sense," Cormier said.
Fire safety checklist
• Install and maintain smoke alarms. Install working smoke alarms on every level of your home, especially near sleeping areas. Test and dust each alarm monthly, and change the batteries at least once a year.
• Use smoking materials safely. Never smoke in bed, while drowsy, or while under the influence of medication or alcohol. Use large, deep ashtrays for smoking debris, and let the contents cool before you dispose of them.
• Pay attention to your cooking. Keep pot handles turned inward, and keep cooking surfaces and surrounding areas free from clutter and grease build-up. Use pot holders and oven mitts. Never lean over a hot burner and avoid wearing loose clothing with flowing sleeves while cooking.
• Heat your home safely. Have a professional service all heating equipment annualy. Keep combustibles and anything that can burn or melt away from all heaters, furnaces, fireplaces and water heaters. Never use a range or oven to heat your home.
• Practice electrical safety. Have a professional electrician inspect your home's electrical wiring system at least every 10 years, and make recommended repairs. Never overload the electrical system. Plug each appliance directly into its own outlet and avoid using extension cords.
• Keep matches and lighters away from children. Store matches and lighters in a locked drawer or a high cabinet away from a child's reach. Make sure lighters are child-resistant.
• Know what to do in case of fire. Practice two ways out of every room in your home. Get out as soon as you discover a fire; do not try to fight the fire. Once out of the house, stay out. Immediately dial 9-1-1 or local emergency number for help.