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Firefighters douse a chimney fire on Hewitt Road in Mystic in December 2019. Damage was limited to the chimney itself in this case, but often end up with more serious damage or injuries. Fire officials around the region are urging residents to play it safe this holiday season to prevent a tragedy. Sun file photo

Holidays in southern New England bring a certain wintertime charm with fireplaces lit for family gatherings, home-cooked meals, and candles and decorations marking the Christmas season. It's also one of the most dangerous times of year for house fires — and local fire officials are urging all area residents "to play it safe."

With the COVID-19 pandemic leading many to stay at home and consider new traditions in 2020, fire departments throughout the region are preparing for a possible increase in fire-related response calls. The concern, officials said this week, is that not only will there likely be a lot more fireplaces in use but that economic struggles may also lead to a drastic increase in alternative heating sources, many of which are a greater fire danger to homes.

"We do suspect it will be a busier-than-usual season for chimney fires in particular," Watch Hill Fire Chief Robert Peacock said this week. "For a variety of reasons, from staying at home to combating heating costs, people intend to use their fireplaces more frequently. We want people to be able to enjoy, but it is important to make sure they do so safely."

Peacock and Pawcatuck Deputy Fire Marshal Byron Stillman said volunteers have been working to assure their training is up to date, and departments throughout the region are developing holiday-response plans in the event that a serious fire should occur. Both Watch Hill and Pawcatuck firefighters are prepared for whatever the winter may bring, they said.

According to data from the National Fire Protection Association, winter and holiday-based activities are among the top causes for fires in southern New England. The organization said that in December and January, cooking is the most frequent way a fire is started, followed by heating devices and candles.

Electrical and smoking-related fires round out the top five.

"We are ready to go under the direction of Fire Chief Kevin Burns, but obviously the hope is we won't have to," Stillman said.

On Facebook, the Hope Valley-Wyoming Fire Department continues an annual push to remind local residents of basic precautions for holiday cooking, use of space heaters, Christmas tree safety and more. The organization utilizes posts that share data from popular and reputable sources such as the NFPA and the National Fire Safety Council Inc.

In recent years, other regional departments have also taken to social media more frequently with similar reminders, including the Charlestown Richmond, North Stonington and Dunn's Corners fire departments.

The best way to combat fire danger is through awareness and prevention, Stillman said Tuesday, and that's why fire departments from Mystic to Hope Valley are taking steps to educate the public to dangers and encourage safe practices throughout the winter season.

Both Stillman and Peacock said use of space heaters are a concern, especially as some look to balance their budget following a difficult year. Some will turn to more frequent use of wood-based sources, while others may consider plugging in a space heater or two.

"Make sure to always have proper space between an alternative heating source, such as a space heater, and any flammable objects," Peacock said. "If you are using a fireplace, make sure that all pipes and chimney flues are cleared."

Nearly 46,000 home heating fires occur in the U.S. each year resulting in approximately 205 deaths and 725 injuries per year, as well as more than $500 million in property losses, according to statistics from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Fire officials recommended that homeowners have their chimneys professionally cleaned and furnaces checked "at least once per year" and preferably twice. Given the high fire risk in December, Stillman also advised residents to double check their smoke detectors and consider installation of carbon monoxide sensors, especially in homes with fireplaces or other elements that can increase the presence of carbon monoxide.

With people spending more time at home, Stillman emphasized the need to check those detectors to protect your family from carbon monoxide poisoning.

In the past couple years, volunteer firefighters at agencies in both Westerly and Stonington have also seen an increase in calls to exterior fires caused by improperly discarded ash. Dunn's Corners and Pawcatuck each responded to calls in 2019 that involved tree-line fires that erupted after embers that were still burning were dumped near a bush or in a brushy area.

Stillman urged residents to dump any embers in safe areas away from the house and woodline, and to do so only after checking that they are fully extinguished and have been doused for added safety.

"Homes that do use a fireplace need to be careful to properly discard ashes. Ash can smolder and stay hot for a while, and if left inside it can increase the presence of carbon monoxide as well," Stillman said.

Holiday safety

Family gatherings, holiday cooking and decorations that involve lights or candles also increase the risk of fires and injuries as well.

"You would be surprised how many times we've seen things such as candles on a tree," Stillman said. "We recommend finding a different location for candles, and to never leave them unattended, especially in the presence of pets and small children who may be more likely to knock them over."

Families and their guests should also have a designated location to meet in the event of an emergency, officials said.

For those who may be using a deep fryer or grill to cook a turkey or other holiday entrees this season, fire officials stressed that it's important to perform the task outdoors at a safe distance of at least 10 feet from the home or other structures.

A couple more safety tips: Have a spotter nearby when using a ladder to decorate a tree, and don't forget to water a live tree daily. And if there are concerns about a potential danger or any questions, play it safe and don't hesitate to call your local fire department for advice.

"We just want everyone to have a happy, safe holiday season," Stillman said.

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