Delaware officials offer tips on reducing risk of residential fires in winter

By Craig Anderson
Posted 1/16/22

DOVER — A string of recent accidental residential fires in Kent and Sussex counties were severe but not unusual for this time of the year, Delaware Assistant State Fire Marshal Michael …

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Delaware officials offer tips on reducing risk of residential fires in winter


DOVER — A string of recent accidental residential fires in Kent and Sussex counties were severe but not unusual for this time of the year, Delaware Assistant State Fire Marshal Michael Chionchio said.

And more may be coming, Mr. Chionchio said. That’s the unfortunate nature of the freezing chill of the winter months, when more space heaters are plugged in, pipes freeze and fireplace logs crackle.

Since Jan. 6, volunteer firefighters have responded to two significant residential blazes in Milford and one each in Georgetown, Greenwood and Frederica.

The Frederica and Georgetown fires caused estimated damages of $350,000 and $250,000 respectively, and left seven occupants displaced and two dogs deceased. The Red Cross of Delmarva responded to assist the victims.

Mr. Chionchio said the Frederica blaze ignited and spread due to a vehicle engine compartment fire inside an attached garage. The Georgetown fire erupted when an appliance malfunctioned for an unknown reason.

An electrical heat lamp failure within a shed caused the fire in the 1100 block of Deep Grass Lane in Greenwood, an investigation found.

Late Wednesday in Milford, the Carlisle Fire Company and neighboring departments responded to a blaze in the 6000 block of Old Shawnee Road that caused an estimated $125,000 in damages to a single-family dwelling.

The fire began on the outside of the dwelling due to an electrical extension cord that was providing power to a camper when it failed.

About six hours earlier, in the unit block of Elizabeth Street in Milford, improperly discarded smoking materials in the kitchen/dining area sparked a fire that brought about $50,000 in damage.

While the causes of the fires weren’t all necessarily connected to winter, Mr. Chionchio said the continued chill only increases the chances of residential ignition.

“The winter months always pose additional fire safety needs due to the cold weather,” he said. “Portable space heaters are often used. Combustible material (blankets, pillows, bedding) less than three feet from such heaters can ignite. Fireplace and woodstoves are used during cold weather.”

According to National Fire Prevention Association spokeswoman Susan McKelvey, the number of fires in the winter months have decreased between 2003 and 2019. Data indicated they have gone down 10% for January in that time span and 20% for December.

“Interestingly it looks like the decrease is bigger in the winter months than the summer months,” she said.

Mr. Chionchio recommends “a yearly inspection of fireplaces and woodstoves by a professional to make sure there are no hazards in or around the fireplace or woodstove.

“Chimneys should be cleaned once a year — more often if the fireplace/woodstove is constantly used. Central heaters should be inspected yearly by a professional to reduce the chances of carbon monoxide poisoning or fire.”

Also, he said, “All homes are subject to varying degrees of fire. It is important to have smoke alarms, CO detectors and an escape plan. Consideration should be given to install residential sprinklers in homes.”

According to Ms. McKelvey, reducing the risk of fire during the colder months includes:
• Making sure heating equipment is in good working order
• Having heating systems inspected and cleaned, if necessary, before the start of the heating season by a qualified professional
• Carefully monitoring space heaters and fireplaces when in use; never leave the room or go to sleep when using either.

“Prevention is key,” Ms. McKelvey said. “Knowing where fire hazards in your home exist and taking the steps to prevent them can significantly reduce the likelihood of having a home fire.

“Also, installing, testing and maintaining smoke alarms is critical to home fire safety, as is having a home escape plan that everyone in the home has practiced together.”

Home sprinklers are a critical asset in the midst of a growing fire, Ms. McKelvey said.

“Home fire sprinklers, which have been available for quite some time now, but in relative terms are a newer technology, greatly reduce the risk of fire deaths and injuries, as well as property damage,” she said.

“NFPA has worked in coordination with other organizations for the past 20 years to encourage states to require home fire sprinklers in new residential constructions.”

Today’s homes are often built with features that have actually increased fire risk in more recent years, Ms. McKelvey said.

“Homes designed with lots of open spaces and high ceilings can help accelerate the speed at which fire spreads,” she said.

“Newer homes also tend to be built with lightweight wood construction that weakens and collapses faster when exposed to high temperatures than dimensional lumber, generating black smoke and gases that make it difficult to see and breathe in a very short window of time.

“Add to that, many of the products and furnishings in our homes are made of synthetic materials and fibers that burn at high temperatures and also generate toxic black smoke and gases. All these factors combined have helped accelerate the speed at which today’s home fires spread, so that people may have as little as one to two minutes to escape a home fire from the time the smoke alarms sound.”

Using the recent Bronx, New York, apartment fire that caused the deaths of 17 people as an example, Little Creek Volunteer Fire Company Chief Scott Bundek advised anyone threatened by a fire to be sure to close off the room it starts in.

According to the Associated Press, fire officials said a malfunctioning electric space heater started the blaze in New York, which damaged only a small part of the building. But smoke engulfed the complex after tenants, fleeing the unit where the flames began, left the apartment door open behind them in their hurry to escape.

Challenges abound for firefighters in the cold, Mr. Bundek said.

“The number one challenge is that our main suppression is water and if the temperature is below freezing the water begins to freeze,” he said.

“Not necessarily coming out of the truck to put the fire out, but once you spray water everywhere it becomes slippery, gear gets coated in water or ice, everything becomes more difficult to navigate in.

“And you have to watch out for the safety of the responders as well because you don’t want them falling over or getting injured in any way. Then there’s something like snow, which can make it more difficult to find hydrants, get quick access to the houses.”

Also, he said, “Extreme heat and extreme cold will wear on folks that are working. They’ll tire very quickly. It wears them out.”

Training helps firefighters to knock down fires in any type of weather, Mr. Chionchio said.

“Although the cold can be uncomfortable, firefighters are schooled in extinguishing fires in the cold,” he said. “Slipping hazards and ice-covered equipment are quickly dealt with while focusing on extinguishing the fire immediately.”

In the midst of tackling a blaze, Dover Fire Department Chief David Carey said, the adrenaline pumps and focus on the task at hand — extinguishing — is acute. Once the fire is controlled with maximum effort, however, “You see a family or residents who are upset and may have lost everything. That’s the tough part.”