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Safe space

With heating costs spiraling upward and temperatures dropping, the lure of inexpensive heat grows stronger. Maybe one of those under-$50 space heaters at the local big-box store seems like the answer. Maybe.

According to the National Fire Protection Association's Fire Analysis and Research division, U.S. fire departments responded to 58,900 house fires in 2009 that involved heating equipment. Between the years 2005 and 2009, most fire deaths (79 percent) involved stationary or portable space heaters.

Medford Fire-Rescue Deputy Chief Gordon Sletmoe says many risks can be mitigated by following safety tips that are "slam-dunk common sense to us but may not necessarily be intuitive to the general public."

The first step, says Ralph Sartain, Medford Fire-Rescue inspector and emergency medical technician, is selecting a heater that is Underwriters Laboratories-approved with a "tip-over feature." This feature will shut off the heater should it fall over.

Other tips include:

  • Plug heaters directly into wall outlets. Do not use extension cords because they could become overheated and start a fire.
  • Check electric cords on existing units for damage. If cords get hot or are frayed or cracked, do not use the heaters. Service them as soon as possible.
  • Keep electric heaters at least 36 inches from combustibles, including blankets, furniture, clothing, paper and draperies.
  • Vacuum any lint or dust from the heater. A dirty heater can overheat, resulting in fire. Make sure to unplug the heater before vacuuming.
  • The heater should have a working thermostat in its design. This will ensure it does not overheat.
  • The heater should have an element guard. This will prevent burns.
  • Turn off heaters when family members are sleeping or leave the house. Unattended heat sources are major causes of fires.
  • Do not hang combustible items to dry over portable heaters. These may catch fire.
  • Keep heaters out of traffic areas or exits. Blocked exits are main causes of fire deaths.
  • Always ensure an adult is present when using a portable heater around the home. Children or pets can easily tip over a heater and do not understand possible burn and fire hazards.
  • Do not use kerosene heaters inside houses. They are subject to sudden flare-ups and emit poisonous fumes.
  • Ensure you have working smoke detectors and test them frequently. Smoke detectors are recommended on every level of a house, in the immediate spaces outside of sleeping areas and in every bedroom.

Sartain says the three most common factors in space-heater fires he's investigated are:

  • Flammable items were stacked on and around the heater.
  • Fire-triggering heaters were routed through surge protectors rather than plugged directly into wall outlets.
  • The heaters were aged, worn and unapproved by a testing agency, such as United Laboratories.

"We cannot overemphasize enough that any space heater that is in use and that does not have a tip-over cutoff switch be immediately removed from your home," says Sartain.