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SALT LAKE CITY — As winter has rolled across Utah, bringing with it alternate ways of heating to combat the cold, the state fire marshal’s office reported 57 house fires occured in December.
Sheri Stevens, National Fire Incident Reporting System state program manager, noted the statistics aren’t fully complete as not all of the departments have reported their jurisdiction’s incidents yet. It can take some time for all of the numbers to trickle in.
Unified Fire Authority has been at the front lines of fighting these winter house fires, as the department oversees more than 400,000 residents in Salt Lake County and is the largest in Utah.
Unified Fire Authority spokesman Matthew McFarland said winter seems to bring an uptick in house fires, credited largely to the use of unconventional heat sources like chimneys, wood stoves and space heaters.
Rural parts of Utah are less likely to see an increase in the number of chimney fires during winter because residents there are more likely to use a chimney as their primary source of heat, McFarland explained. However, across urban areas like Salt Lake County and into Eagle Mountain, stretches that fall under the Unified Fire Authority’s jurisdiction, the number of fires tends to jump during winter, he said, because people there generally use their chimneys seasonally.
“That’s almost always due to improper maintenance,” McFarland said. “We can’t stress enough how important it is to have your chimney cleaned and inspected by a certified individual on a yearly basis.”
McFarland also cited a rise of fires caused by space heaters during the winter. These are not as prevalent as chimney fires, he said, but they do still sometimes occur when an unapproved space heater is used in an indoor space or at a construction site as a temporary heat source.
Protecting your home
Despite the dangers house fires pose, McFarland said they are largely preventable if residents take certain steps to protect themselves and their homes.
McFarland emphasized open flames — whether that be a fireplace, candle, or even a space heater — should never be left unattended. Having a fire extinguisher on hand and understanding how to use it is also a good idea, he said.
It doesn't take long for a small fire that has spilled out of a fireplace or an accident on the stove to fully engulf a room.
–Matthew McFarland, Unified Fire Authority
“Residential structure fires double in size every minute that it is unattended. It doesn’t take long for a small fire that has spilled out of a fireplace or an accident on the stove to fully engulf a room. And once that’s fully engulfed, within a minute, half your house is going to be engulfed,” McFarland said. “If we can get there fast and mitigate that hazard when it’s in a single room as opposed to having grown into a larger part of the structure, that’s going to be really important.”
Importance of smoke detectors
He stressed the importance of smoke detectors and advised that Utahns install one in every bedroom, as well as each common area in a house.
In doing these things, “we can all but eliminate these fires,” McFarland said.
According to regional Red Cross spokesman Rich Woodruff, the Utah Red Cross will be offering free smoke alarm installation as part of a campaign.
In addition to smoke alarm installation, the humanitarian organization offers countless emergency services to those impacted by disaster — a large portion of which include house fires.
Of the 62,000 disasters the Red Cross responds to each year, 90% are home fires. It’s a main focus of the Utah branch, particularly during the winter when fire rates spike, Woodruff said.
The organization’s efforts are 90% volunteer based. Members of the Red Cross dispatched to house fires — dubbed disaster action teams — usually go out in teams of two upon receiving a call from a fire department informing them that the residents have requested help. The Utah Red Cross responded to 26 fire calls between Thanksgiving and New Years, giving financial assistance to 97 individuals.
“We get there pretty quickly, usually within an hour or so. We are ready to respond on a moments notice and we’ve got volunteers on call so when the request comes, we are ready to go,” Woodruff said.
Red Cross assistance
The Utah Red Cross provides emergency short-term assistance and financial aid in the form of food, lodging, clothing and toiletries.
The needs vary, Woodruff said. It depends on the size of the family and their specific concerns. Sometimes that means a stuffed animal for a child. Other times it’s providing a replacement for lost prescription medicine.
“A lot of what we do is emotional support as well,” he explained. “We also have volunteers that are licensed mental health professionals. If there’s a tragedy attached to the fire, like a lot of times there is, sadly, we do have Red Cross volunteers that offer that emotional support.”
The organization’s aid extends beyond initial displacement, Woodruff said. The Utah Red Cross collaborates with other agencies to work out a long-term recovery plan and will continue to work with the family in the weeks that follow, sometimes longer.
“We just want to make sure we get them back on their feet beyond the trauma of that first impact it has on them,” he said.