By Starrla Cray
WINSTED, LESTER PRAIRIE, HOWARD LAKE, DASSEL, MN Although many fires are preventable, local fire chiefs and firefighters warn that it only takes one mistake to create a flame with the potential to devastate a home.
“It seems to go in streaks,” Howard Lake First Assistant Fire Chief Steve Halverson said during a discussion among local firefighters at the Winsted Herald Journal office Tuesday.
In Winsted, for example, there have been three house fires within the past few months. Around Christmas time in late 2006, early 2007, another streak of three fires hit Winsted, as well.
Winsted Fire Chief Chad Engel said he’s not sure why there have been more fires recently.
“We went quite a while without,” Engel said. “Lately, it’s been a few more. It’s been weird.”
In Dassel, there have been at least two house fires and two barn fires so far this year, Dassel firefighter Erin Tormanen said.
“This was unusual to have so many structure fires so early in the year,” he said.
Common causes of fires are vast and varied, ranging from electrical problems and portable heaters to propane tanks, grills, car mufflers, arson, candles, and more.
“Candles are a bad one,” Halverson said. “People will light them and leave.”
“People should take those scented candles, put them in a box and throw them in the dumpster,” Lester Prairie Fire Chief Jim Hoof added.
In the case of electrical fires, most result from wiring problems such as faulty electrical outlets and old wiring, according to the US Fire Administration web site. For people who are putting wiring in their homes, Hoof said it is important to get a thorough inspection to make sure wiring is up to code.
Howard Lake Second Assistant Fire Chief Tom Diers stressed the importance of cleaning behind electrical appliances, replacing frayed wiring, and not overloading extension cords or wall sockets.
“Housekeeping is huge,” Tormanen added.
Diers described electricity with the saying, “If you don’t pay for it, it’ll get turned off. If you mess with it, it’ll kill you.”
Weather also plays a part in the type and frequency of fires, the firefighters said.
December is the most dangerous month for electrical fires, according to the US Fire Administration web site. Gas stoves, heaters, and more indoor lighting account for some of these fires, Hoof said.
Summertime brings the possibility of fire, as well.
“A dry summer, you might as well just hang out at the fire hall,” Tormanen said.
Grass fires are often started when a car is left idling in tall weeds, because of the heat from the muffler.
Warm weather also means more fires caused by grills, Halverson said. Grills should only be used outside, he said, not in the garage or under the overhang.
“The vast majority [of fires] are preventable, I would say,” Tormanen said, adding that the main reason fires happen is complacency.
People always think it will happen to someone else, and not them, Hoof said.
“Common sense isn’t common,” he said.
“Take a second to think about stuff before you do it,” Diers added.
However, even with proper precautions, accidents happen, and households should be prepared to handle a fire emergency, firefighters said.
“Have a plan and practice it,” Diers said. “The more you practice, the more you will do it naturally.”
For families with children, Tormanen advises doing some drills without telling the kids in advance.
Engel said that when his department teaches fire prevention in schools, he has discovered that some children are a little afraid of the firefighters when they are wearing a mask. One firefighter will put on the full outfit, and another firefighter will ask, “What are you going to do if you see someone dressed like this?” Engel said kids have answered, “We’re going to crawl under our beds.”
To help children become more comfortable, the firefighters said parents are welcome to come to the station to visit.
“We love to see kids come to the fire station,” Hoof said.
Some families have a ladder ready for children to climb down in case of a fire, but Tormanen said a ladder might do more harm than good. Some children are more likely to be injured from falling off the ladder, he said, and it would be safer for them to open the window and wait for help.
If someone is unable to escape, Tormanen said to place a towel underneath the door to keep smoke from coming in.
“The vast majority are not killed by flame,” he said. “They’re killed by smoke.”
A mistake many people make during a fire is opening the doors, Hoof said.
Doors should be kept shut, if possible, because “you don’t want to give the fire a path to go,” Tormanen explained.
Another mistake some people make is trying to put out the fire alone. Fire doubles in size every 30 seconds, Diers said, often making a fire difficult to extinguish without the proper equipment.
A person’s main focus should be to get out of the building safely, Halverson said.
“You can replace things, but you can’t replace people,” he said.
Most fire departments are willing to do a walk-through of a person’s home to help identify potential fire hazards, the firefighters said.
“It’s just taking a proactive approach,” Tormanen said.