It's that time of year again for "chestnuts roasting on an open fire," and local fire officials are urging residents to do so carefully and to make sure heating systems are properly maintained to ensure a fire- and injury-free holiday season.
Several fire departments have taken part in public information campaigns over the past few weeks. Hope Valley-Wyoming Fire Chief Justin Lee said the goal is to prevent a tragedy and to keep residents and first responders home with their families.
"Everyone wants to enjoy the holiday season. It's a lot easier when you are not dealing with injuries or fire damage," he said.
Hope Valley shared a message on Thursday, urging residents to take time to make sure their heating systems, especially chimneys and furnaces, are clean, clear of debris and in good working order. In a Facebook post, an elf dressed in fire gear sat on the back of a truck and urged residents to "have their chimneys ready for Santa."
"Word on the street is there is a big night coming up in a couple of weeks. We have received a tip from our friend (the Elf on the Shelf) that Santa likes a clean chimney. Best to make sure it’s clean to help you stay on the nice list," the department said.
Volunteer firefighters responded Dec. 4 to a chimney fire at a Spring Street home in Hopkinton. The fire, caused by a creosote buildup, was quickly discovered and contained within the pipe, but it might have spread if the residents hadn't been home, officials said.
In Pawcatuck, Deputy Fire Marshal Byron Stillman said that firefighters have had several early season calls, including a furnace malfunction that pushed smoke into a home, and a fire on Pequot Trail that was caused by a broken fuel nozzle that had sprayed oil onto the boiler and floor.
"There was oil everywhere. If the furnace were to spark or produce enough heat, we'd be talking about a far more serious issue," Stillman said. "It goes to show how important it is to maintain your systems."
Nearly 46,000 home heating fires occur in the U.S. each year, according to statistics from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, resulting in approximately 205 deaths and 725 injuries per year, as well as more than $500 million in property losses.
The 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 CO.
"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.
For the same reason, kerosene-based products should not be used inside the home. Carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless and tasteless, he said, and can cause harm before its victims are aware of it.
Fire officials also said space heaters should be inspected, and kept away from flammable objects such as paper, clothing, drapery and the Christmas tree.
Family gatherings, holiday cooking and decorations that involve lights or candles also increase the risk of fires and injuries.
"You would be surprised how many times we've seen things such as candles on a tree," said Stillman. "It may look pretty, but it is dangerous and isn't worth the risk."
Families and their guess should also have a designated location to meet in the event of an emergency. "It may seem obvious, but unfortunately at times it seems common sense isn't so common," Stillman said.
Using a deep fryer or grill to cook a turkey or other holiday entrees can also present a safety hazard, and the fire officials stressed that it's important to perform this task outdoors at a safe distance — at least 10 feet — from the home or other structures. "That also means not in the garage. You'd be surprised how many people consider the garage to be outside," Lee said.
Here's a couple more safety tips: Have a spotter nearby if you're using a ladder to decorate a tree, and don't forget to water a live tree.
"We just want everyone to take a moment and plan ahead to keep themselves and their families safe this holiday season," Stillman said.