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Winter fire and health safety precautions

With the onset of winter, particularly around the holidays, Pagosa Fire Protection District Chief Ron Thompson often suffers serious sleep deprivation. Of course, the long cold nights or festive holiday spirit have nothing to do with it, but a legitimate fear of catastrophic fire certainly does.

Every year, as temperatures plummet and people spend more time indoors, carelessness and a variety of obvious and not-so-obvious hazards result in calamitous conditions, including fire, smoke inhalation, carbon monoxide poisoning and death.

In a recent interview, Thompson said, “This time of year, candles can be a real threat. People forget to blow them out, wax runs over or out of containers and pets can cause issues, especially curious cats. Candles should never be left unattended and children should never be unsupervised with candles and matches.”

Thompson said overloaded extension cords or inadequate power strips are also sources of concern. He suggests using cords or strips of proper amperage to handle the intended load, while never covering them with rugs or draperies. While slightly more expensive, a strip with a built-in breaker and reset button is much safer than a less expensive model.

Appliances, including hair dryers and space heaters, use a lot of electricity and Thompson recommends heavy-duty extension cords when necessary. He said standard cords utilize 16-gauge wire, and heat up rapidly when used with appliances demanding higher electrical output.

Space heaters are typically rated at 1,500 watts and should be plugged directly into electrical outlets. They should also be kept well away from furniture, trash bags, newspapers and laundry piles.

“One of our primary concerns,” Thompson continued,”“is carbon monoxide from fireplaces, wood-stoves and any type of open-flame appliance.”

Carbon monoxide (CO) is cumulative and collects in the bloodstream over time, Thompson said, and exposure to 100 parts per million (PPM) over an eight-hour period is too much. He suggested that chronic exposure, such as 100 PPM an hour, over an eight-hour period, for five consecutive days would likely kill someone.

“It’s absorbed in the bloodstream 220 times faster than oxygen,” Thompson added. It pushes oxygen out of the lungs.”

During the interview, Thompson cited a new state law that requires all new homes or those changing ownership to have at least one functional CO detector installed. He said rental properties must also have one.

“People running their cars inside the garage and not outside,” Thompson added,”“causes carbon monoxide to seep through seals (of the pedestrian door) into the home. They need to warm their cars outside, well away from the home.”

For adequate protection from CO poisoning, early warning is critical. Consumers should install at least one CO alarm (with an audible warning) near sleeping areas. Multi-level homes should include one per floor, and fuel-burning appliances, furnaces, venting and chimney systems should be inspected by a certified technician annually, or as recommended by respective manufacturers.

Smoke detectors are also vital to safety and serve as a consumer’s first line of defense in the event of fire. People can’t smell smoke while sleeping, and most fatalities occur within the first five minutes of a fire. While most homes now have smoke detectors, authorities estimate that at least half fail to work properly due to missing or dead batteries.

Again, every level of a home should include smoke detectors, particularly in sleeping areas. Consumers should inspect detectors monthly, and change batteries every six months. Properly maintained smoke detectors increase a person’s chances of surviving a fire by 50 percent.

According to Chief Thompson, the most reliable smoke detectors are hot-wired into a home’s electrical system and backed up by a 9-volt battery.

Across North America, more than 100,000 home fires start in the kitchen every year, killing hundreds of people and injuring thousands. More than 40 percent of fatalities resulting from cooking fires occur while people are sleeping. To prevent cooking fires, people should take the following steps:

• Never leave cooking unattended.

• Keep appliances and cooking surfaces clean and free of grease buildup.

• Do not keep curtains, potholders, dish towels, food packaging or other flammable objects near the stove.

• Turn pot handles toward the center of the stove and away from the grasp of small children. This will avert serious injury to delicate eyes and faces, and prevent someone from knocking pots or pans from the stove to the counter or floor.

• Wearing short or close-fitting sleeves while cooking will keep clothing from coming into contact with hot or inflamed stove burners.

• Always heat cooking oil slowly and never leave it unattended.

• Young children should remain a safe distance (three feet) from the stove, while older children should only cook under adult supervision.

Accidents happen. In the event a cooking fire should erupt in the kitchen or elsewhere:

• Carefully put a lid over a flaming pan and turn off the stove burner.

• If a fire starts in the oven or microwave, keep the door shut and turn off the heat. If flames persist, call the fire department immediately.

• Not all fires are alike. Know how to use a fire extinguisher, but before using it, know what the escape route is and call the fire department.

• Never pour water on a grease fire. Water will only cause it to spread.

• Know your fire department emergency number (Pagosa Fire Protection District is 731-4191), or call 911.