The heater likely came on for the first time in months a week or so ago.
Was the welcome heat also accompanied by the smell of burning dust?
It's also likely more than a few Mid-Columbians were rummaging through drawers looking for matches to light the fireplace. But did they remember to have the flue and fire box checked out first?
Early dusk also prompts many to pull out candles to create a cozy atmosphere. But before lighting them did they check to be sure nothing combustible was nearby and that the family pet wasn't in the room?
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According to the National Fire Protection Association -- www.nfpa.org -- home heating equipment was involved in about 62,200 house fires, or 16 percent of the total, in the United States in 2005. Candles ignited 4 percent of the home fires in the same year.
With October being National Fire Safety Month, now is a good time to look around, check for hazards and bone up on fire prevention practices.
To help, the American Red Cross and The Home Depot stores have developed a free clinic, "Family Fire Safety" that will be offered at 1 p.m. every Saturday in October in all Home Depot stores.
According to the Red Cross, the key to getting out of a house fire safely is to have an escape plan and practice it. Each room should have at least two escape routes.
Multistory homes may also need escape ladders in the bedrooms. Because younger children often sleep through smoke alarms, decide who will wake children for fire drills and emergencies. And choose a spot outdoors, safely away from the house, where everyone will meet.
But having a plan is just one part of fire safety. Preventing fires from happening is even better.
Here are some tips gleaned from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Home Depot and the Red Cross to help keep you and your family safe this winter:
-- According to the NFPA, properly installed and maintained smoke alarms are vital. Install one on every floor of the house and outside every sleeping area. Avoid placing them in corners, which have poor air circulation, or within 3 feet of an air supply register, which could blow any smoke away from it. Check the batteries monthly and replace them once a year. Replace the entire smoke alarm unit every 10 years.
-- Install fire extinguishers high on the wall, near an exit and away from any heat sources. Check the pressure gauge on fire extinguishers monthly. It should register in the green field.
-- To use a fire extinguisher, stand 6 feet away from the fire and remember the PASS system:
P -- Pull the pin.
A -- Aim the nozzle.
S -- Squeeze the lever.
S -- Sweep from side to side.
-- Check your home for hazards -- overloaded wall sockets, cords running under rugs, drapes or other flammables near baseboard heaters. Involve your children. They may see things you miss.
-- Keep electric space heaters at least 3 feet away from furniture, curtains, bedding or blankets. Don't use an extension cord; they're not always adequate to carry the amount of current the heater pulls. Unplug portable heaters when not in use. About half the deaths from space-heater fires occur at night when people are sleeping, the U.S. Consumer Safety Commission says. Look for a space heater that turns itself off when it overheats or is tipped over.
-- Keep the clothes dryer vent and ductwork clean and lint-free. If you can't do this chore, have a professional clean the duct twice a year or more.
-- If you have a fireplace, it and the chimney need to be inspected and cleaned annually. Cleaning removes creosote, a highly flammable substance that builds up in chimneys when wood is burned.
* Loretto J. Hulse: 509-582-1513; firstname.lastname@example.org