Victoria C. Quiller, 87, died Feb. 6 after her Martinez home caught fire.
The fire at the Collins Drive home, Columbia County's only fatal fire last winter, is believed to have started with one of the several kerosene and electric space heaters inside the cluttered home.
Many home fires, which occur much more often in the winter, can be traced to heating equipment and alternative heat sources such as HVAC systems, fireplaces, wood stoves and space heaters, officials say.
The peak months for home heating fires are December, January and February, accounting for 43 percent of fires, according to the National Fire Prevention Association. Space heaters, such as the ones that started the fire at Quiller's home, can be particularly dangerous if not used properly.
Space heaters were involved in 26 percent of home heating fires in 2003 and 73 percent of fire-related deaths in 2003, according to the fire prevention association's most recent statistics. Heating equipment too close to flammable items such as upholstered furniture, clothing, mattresses and bedding, is by far the leading factor contributing to home heating fires and deaths, according to the fire prevention association.
Martinez-Columbia Battalion Chief and Training Officer Danny Kuhlmann said the key to safe operation of space heaters is space. The portable heating units should be placed at least three feet from anything, especially flammable items including furniture, drapes, beds or walls.
"They should be UL (Underwriters Laboratories) approved," Kuhlmann said. "They should have an emergency shut-off device, so if they do get tipped over, they'll automatically shut off."
If using a kerosene heater indoors, residents should have a carbon monoxide detector because the heater uses an open flame.
Space heaters aren't the only cause for the larger number of home fires to which Kuhlmann said his department responds during the winter months. But regular maintenance, cleaning and simple precautions could put out fire risks before they light up.
"They should be cleaned and inspected annually," Kuhlmann said of fireplaces and HVAC units.
The inspection, which should only be performed by a certified chimney sweep or HVAC technician, can detect such hazards as the buildup of creosote, a chemical substance that forms when wood burns and can cause a chimney fire if not removed.
Kuhlmann said avoiding moist "green" wood and pine can help prevent creosote buildup.
Pine has a lot of moisture and sap in it, Kuhlmann said. It is best to burn dried, cured hardwood.
Despite the cause of fires, smoke detectors are necessary in every home to save lives.
"One in every room except the bathroom, and the kitchen, including hallways," Kuhlmann said. "We recommend one in every room."
Smoke detectors are inexpensive and can be purchased at any home improvement or hardware store. Anyone who cannot afford one should call the fire department at (706) 863-7745 to get one free.
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