It's freezing out! This is when you should be worried about house fires

fire at the clinton house!
Video screen capture Fire at the Clinton residence! Conspiracy or bad wiring?

This time of year and this kind of weather is the very worst for avoidable fires. Here's what to do to prevent them.

There was recently a house fire at the Bill and Hillary Clinton residence in Chappaqua, New York; conspiracy theorists are hard at work, blaming it on suspicious evidence burning. Sorry, but it happened in an out-building used by the Secret Service and according to Salon, "it was not connected to the Clintons' home and there is no evidence that it was used by the Clintons to store personal information." In fact, it was an electrical fire in the attic.

structure firesFEMA/ timing of structure fires/Public Domain
Nonetheless, it is a reminder that most house fires happen at this time of year, and it's worse when it is freezing cold. One reason is the extra fire burden of the holidays; according to the US Fire Administration's study, The Seasonal Nature of Fires,

The winter holiday season is defined here as being from December 1 to January 7. The winter holiday season exists during a time of elevated risk for winter heating fires and contains several holidays— Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s— each with the potential to change the profile of fire incidence and cause. Many people begin the celebration of the season by decorating their home with seasonal garlands, electric lights, candles, banners, or displays. Probably the most popular addition for the holiday season, and as fire hazard, is the Christmas tree. It may ignite easily, especially if dried out, it burns vigorously, and it often is positioned in such a way to allow rapid fire spread to other combustible materials in the house. The lights on the tree and proximity to fireplaces add to the danger, along with discarded gift wrapping. The use of candles for decorative or religious purposes also increases during this period.

But there are other reasons that fires happen more often in cold weather, particularly the deep freeze kind of weather we are having now. A lot of people are digging space heaters out of storage; on their own, an old heater can be a hazard as the plastic insulators get hard and brittle or the cords dry out. Other space heaters cause fires because people put them too close to combustible materials; you should keep them a few feet from the wall.

But another reason even new space heaters can cause fires is that they load up electrical circuits to pretty close to their design limit; a 1500 watt heater in a 15 amp circuit doesn't have a lot of headroom. If there is a sloppy connection somewhere, it can heat up enough to cause a fire. In a modern house, those connections are all grounded and in an electrical box; in my 1913 vintage home, I was shocked to find out that for years, many of these wires had been connected to old knob and tube wiring. points to an article by fire investigator Nick Markowitz Jr. which explains in greater detail:

Fires from space heaters are caused when this older circuit starts to heat up and connections start expanding. It could be right at the wall socket or deep in the wall somewhere. I have seen wiring move and touch against nails or metal lath when it heats up to the point were the insulation gets worn off and a spark develops. A slow smouldering fire starts slowly burning, and with dry wood conditions the fire can develop even faster till at some point it breaches the wall and there is explosive results. Even if all connections are tight wiring can still expand and contract when a large continuous load like a space heater is put on it. This is why space heaters should never be left unattended.

Other causes of fires are overloaded extension cords, fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, candles and the single biggest source, cooking fires. Smoking used to be one of the biggest causes, but it is less and less so now.

joints dont burn very wellNAFI/Video screen capture

Perhaps with the legalization of marijuana it will make a comeback as a problem, but according to the National Association of Fire Investigators, "regardless of construction type (hand-rolled vs. tube), the marijuana cigarettes were much more difficult to initially ignite compared to the tobacco cigarettes," and harder to keep lit.

Some tips to prevent fires:

  • Stop using the fireplace or wood stove. Really, they are not very efficient and they are causing big air quality problems as well as being a fire hazard.
  • Get rid of candles. They are terrible for indoor air quality and a hazard.
  • Check all your extension cords, particularly where everything is plugged in. Are they warm? Then they are overheating.
  • Never leave the kitchen when cooking. Or as they sing in another article, Stand by your pan.
  • Install and maintain smoke detectors. Most people have battery powered ionizing smoke detectors; new homes have hard-wired ones. I like hard-wired photoelectric smoke detectors over ionizing ones because they are a little slower to react and there are fewer false alarms.
  • Get a fire extinguisher for your kitchen, keep it close and know how to use it.
  • Plan alternate exit routes and make sure everyone in your family knows them, and plan a meeting space outside.

bigsteps residential sprinklers image

In many ways, our homes have never been safer, with cool LEDs, fewer people smoking and mandatory smoke detectors; it is a huge success story. Now it's time for mandatory sprinklers, which would pretty much bring an end to tragedies like Grenfell and the Bronx.

It's freezing out! This is when you should be worried about house fires
This time of year and this kind of weather is the very worst for avoidable fires. Here's what to do to prevent them.

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