OWATONNA — As temperatures drop, the risk for carbon monoxide leaks and fires in the home can rise, according to Owatonna Fire Department Commander Todd Ulrich. He noted that local firefighters tend to respond to more calls during the colder months, with a lot of issues stemming from heating appliances or accidental cooking fires.
Local numbers are backed up by data from the State Fire Marshal’s office, which shows that 41% of all fire-related deaths in Minnesota over the last five years occurred in November, December and January. Typically, the department also notes that the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is the busiest time for fires.
Going into what he calls “hibernation season,” Ulrich recommended that residents check their carbon monoxide and smoke detectors to make sure that they’re current. He noted that the former should be replaced every seven years and smoke alarms should be replaced every decade, from the date on the back.
Ulrich said it’s important to go by that printed date, as even new store-bought smoke detectors may already be one or two years into their life. He added that they could be as old as four or five years, and that people should pay especially close attention to any discounted alarms.
“I always tell people to watch the sales,” said Ulrich. “They’re not always that way, but it might mean that the date on the smoke detector may be more than one or two years old.”
“If there isn’t a date, it’s old and needs to be replaced,” added Jen Longaecker, public information officer with the State Fire Marshal’s office, via email.
Causes of fire in the kitchen
When it comes to the leading causes of fires — especially during the winter — both Longaecker and Ulrich said cooking was one of the primary culprits.
“Because nobody wants to go out, we’ll see more cooking fires,” the commander explained. “People are attempting to stay home and cook themselves.”
According to Longaecker, cooking is the leading cause of all house fires statewide, though smoking is the leading cause of lethal blazes in the home.
In addition to leaving something on the stove unattended, or accidentally catching an oven mitt or towel in an open flame, Ulrich noted a less obvious cause of kitchen fires can be preheating an oven that is also being used for storage.
“I’ve seen all sorts of things stuffed in an oven for a place to put them, and people forget when they preheat the oven,” he explained. In addition to pots and pans, he said he’s seen other kitchen supplies, bread and Tupperware also stashed away under the stove.
In the event of an oven fire, Ulrich said to leave the door shut and — as with any blaze — call 911. He also recommended having a fire extinguisher in or near the kitchen, but a safe distance away from the oven itself.
Cozy … but safe
Apart from cooking, holiday decorations and heating methods are other winter-specific hazards.
“People love using candles in the winter to decorate for the holidays and to keep their home cozy,” explained Longaecker. But, “candles left unattended can quickly cause a fire.”
One alternative, she said, is to use flameless candles. If residents want to have the real deal, Ulrich said to be sure they’re staying in the same room as the open flame.
“Burning candles should be attended due to pets and small children,” he said. “We had an incident where there was a candle burning on the top of the toilet tank and the pet went in, tipped it over and started the bathroom on fire.”
Large heating appliances can also cause fires — and carbon monoxide leaks — due to malfunctions or improper venting as snow stacks up on the roof. Longaecker advised residents to get their furnaces, fireplaces, wood stoves and more checked annually by a professional.
“Many don’t,” she explained. “We fire up our furnaces for the first time and there can be issues if they aren’t functioning properly.”
She added that space heaters also tend to be a hazard unique to the winter months, encouraging people to never leave a space heater unattended or sleep with one on.
“Keep them three feet away from anything combustible, don’t put clothing on space heaters to dry and plug space heaters directly into the wall, not an extension cord,” she advised.
Keeping carbon out
When it comes to carbon monoxide in the home, Ulrich said if furnaces, water heaters and other appliances don’t have clear pathways for their exhaust, that gas can make its way back indoors. He advised residents to ensure chimneys and other vents — notably on the roof — are kept clear of snow and other debris.
“If it’s anything like last year, we should have an overabundance of snow,” added Ulrich. “Those vents start to get covered up, those appliances can’t vent and the carbon monoxide migrates into the house.” He also noted that people running their cars in the garage — with and without the door closed — can also cause a carbon monoxide build up that flows back into the house.
In preparation for continued hibernation, Ulrich advised people to check all of their alarms and reread the manuals so that they know what different beeping patterns mean. Sometimes it can signal that a battery needs to be replaced, or that there’s some other malfunction with the device, not necessarily a fire or carbon monoxide leak.
In terms of placement, he advised having a carbon monoxide detector within 10 feet of all sleeping quarters and a smoke alarm in every bedroom and in a common area on each floor.
“Create an escape plan for your home and practice it with everyone in your family,” added Longaecker. “Your plan needs to include two ways out from every room, and a family meeting place outside. You only have minutes to escape your home if it starts on fire. Practicing your plan is critical to making sure everyone gets out safely.”
For rural homes, the State Fire Marshal’s website also advises being sure that the address is clearly visible from the road, which will help responders find residents in the event of an emergency. The office also recommends storing firewood well away from the home, and ensuring that all doors and windows can open properly without being blocked by snow or ice.
Longaecker encouraged Minnesotans to visit the State Fire Marshal’s website at sfm.dps.mn.gov, for more fire prevention and safety tips. Additionally, Ulrich noted that area residents can call the Owatonna Fire Department at 507-444-2454 with any questions.