House fires multiply in winter

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The months from December through March are peak times for house fires, a statistic born out locally with tragic results this week.

This week, firefighters around Central Illinois have responded to several house fires, including one fire in the Champaign County town of Homer that took two lives and a Sunday morning house fire near Latham in which one woman was found dead.

“We always see an increase in fires, it seems like, over the winter months,” said Decatur Fire Marshal Lyle Meador.

Winter fires claim 905 lives each year and cause almost $2.1 billion in damage around the United States each year, according to data from the U.S. Fire Administration. The leading cause of those fires is cooking, followed by home heating.

“Sometimes, it’s actually related to a furnace, but a lot of times it’s space heaters or candles or fireplaces,” Meador said. “If you are going to use space heaters, we recommend you keep three feet of space between the space heater and … anything that can burn. People like to plug them into extension cords, and that’s a big no-no. It carries a lot of current. So we recommend you plug those space heaters directly into an outlet, or at least into a UL-Approved power strip.”

Some families turn to space heaters or other sources of heat because they cannot afford to repair broken home furnaces, but the City of Decatur provides a federally-funded emergency program that helps some low-income homeowners correct life-threatening problems such as diagnosed furnace failure.

Meanwhile, firefighters say having working smoke detectors in a home is critical to keeping safe.

“The law requires you to have a smoke alarm on each level of your home within 15 feet of all sleeping areas, and now they’ve updated that: you should have one in each of your bedrooms where you’re actually sleeping,” Meador said. “Carbon monoxide detectors you should have within fifteen feet of your sleeping areas.”

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