“We recently responded to a fire started by a pizza box left in an oven,” says Donna Walker, a Master Firefighter with Albemarle County Fire Marshall’s Division,” Actually, she continues, that’s not surprising since kitchen fires comprise the largest category of residential fires.
“Clutter around the kitchen stove and things hanging over stoves can start a fire,” Walker warns. “People often hang dishtowels on the oven door handle and they drop down and ignite. This can spread a fire pretty quickly. Another cause is starting to cook something, then walking away. There are so many distractions now, so much multi-tasking.”
Although the prospect of a home fire is frightening, there are a few key strategies to keep yourself safe. Research conducted by the Albemarle County Fire Rescue and the Department of Social Services, showed that 63 percent of residential fires and all civilian fire casualties since 2011were in poverty areas. The two main contributors to those sad statistics? An absence of smoke alarms and a lack of exit planning.
Albemarle County Fire Rescue wants to reduce those figures and this mission will be helped by nearly $100,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program for enhancing fire protection and safety in low income and impoverished areas of the community.
The grant is funding Project RISK (Residential, Inspections, Smoke Alarms, Knowledge), a door-to-door campaign in Albemarle County addressing smoke alarm awareness and installation, home safety surveys and inspections, escape planning, and fire drills, especially (but not exclusively) in poverty areas. “As of this past December,” Walker says proudly, “we’ve installed 762 smoke alarms.”
A large part of Project RISK is simply educating people about fire dangers such as kitchen fires. The second largest category is related to home heating. “Too many people put off maintenance of heat pumps and furnaces that can malfunction and start a fire,” Walker says. Space heaters too close to walls, furniture, curtains or other flammable surfaces are another risk.
Chimney fires also can be a problem. “We had a couple just in the first week of January and one spread into the attic space,” Walker reports. This emphasizes the importance of an annual inspection by a qualified chimney sweep or other professional to enable safe use of a fireplace, fireplace insert, or freestanding stove.
An important tactic is to develop an escape plan that would include two exits from each room, checking if a door is hot to the touch (indicating fire right outside), or how to use an escape ladder from an upstairs location. Having a specific designated meeting spot is also important. This should be a short distance from the dwelling at a mailbox, tree, or other landmark. Especially if you have children, practice fire drills at least twice a year.
It’s also important to keep bedroom doors closed at night. “Have smoke alarms in the bedroom or immediately outside the sleeping areas,” Walker stresses. “This can buy you time to get out, because it’s not the heat, it’s the smoke that is so dangerous.”
The key here, of course, is to have working alarms. When you change your clocks for Daylight Savings Time, suggests Walker, check your alarms. “Always use new batteries,” she urges. “Use the old ones in toys or a remote control. Always be sure your alarm is under ten years old.” She also recommends dual-sensor alarms that pick up both slow-and fast-burning fires.
Readily available home fire extinguishers, mounted in fire-prone sites like the kitchen and garage, are another important safety step. “Many people don’t have working fire extinguishers,” Walker says. “Check the expiration date and if it’s more than ten years old, replace it. The gauge may read OK, but the [chemical fire-extinguishing] powder may be hardened. The power is there but the product isn’t available.”
The Internet has a number of websites with useful suggestions and practical checklists for fire safety in the home. This weekend, why not pop a big bowl of popcorn and call a family meeting to review your family’s fire preparedness.
Home Safety Inspection
If you live in Albemarle County, representatives from Albemarle Fire and Rescue will conduct a home safety inspection and install necessary smoke detectors.
Also included are shower and bath safety, kitchen safety, suggestions for placing medical records in the refrigerator, and other often-overlooked tactics for home safety.
In Albemarle County, schedule an appointment at 434-296-5833. Fire departments outside Albemarle County may also conduct inspections. In addition, there are websites with excellent suggestions for home fire safety.
Marilyn Pribus and her husband live in Albemarle County near Charlottesville. “This home inspection is a great service,” she says. “Ours last fall was very comprehensive. We were advised to install a no-slip surface in a shower, have our chimney inspected—which we do each fall anyway—and they installed a smoke alarm in the garage before they left.”