It’s the time of year for fresh starts and New Year’s resolutions, and there’s scarcely a better one to be made right now than this: Let’s take some basic precautions to prevent potentially disastrous winter fires in the home. Baltimore saw its share of deadly blazes in 2022, including the terrible South Stricker Street inferno that took the lives of three city firefighters nearly one year ago. But Charm City was far from alone in facing this threat. In 2021, the United States recorded 3,800 civilian deaths from fires, which was 300 more than in 2020, according to the National Fire Protection Association, and follows an overall 42% increase in U.S. fire-related deaths since 1980. The NFPA estimates that, on average, there is a house fire-related injury in this country every 47 minutes, and a death every 3 hours and 8 minutes. Yet there are some relatively simple steps people can take to reduce the odds of disaster.
Check your smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms. Experts recommend testing detectors monthly and replacing batteries twice per year. Right now is a great time to replace batteries (if you didn’t already do that when the clocks moved off daylight saving time in November, a traditional battery replacement day along with the springtime switch to DST). The best way to check them is to press and hold the test button until you hear a loud siren. Installed new batteries and still not impressed? It is recommended that smoke detectors be replaced every 10 years. Detectors kept near kitchens can sometimes wear out faster because of the higher risk of smoke, the U.S. Fire Administration warns. Incidentally, smoke detectors should be on every floor of the home, installed outside bedrooms and interconnected, if possible. CO detectors often “chirp” when batteries are low.
Plan your escape from a fire with the family. Check all windows and doors. Talk to both adults and children about what to do in the event of an emergency. There should be two ways out of every room. It’s often best to draw a map. Also, talk about where the family would meet outside the home if an emergency happens. Special measures should also be taken to accommodate those with disabilities who may need help escaping. And please make sure everyone knows how to dial 911 (and that fire crews can see your building number from the street). Such preparations can make all the difference.
Here’s a quick quiz: What are the leading causes of accidental fire in the home? That would be cooking, heating, electrical problems, smoking and candles. Throw in holiday lighting, grilling and entertaining, and you can see why winter is prime fire season. One sensible precaution would be to take down that live Christmas tree as soon as possible if you haven’t already. The combination of electrical lights on dried evergreen branches is not a good one, and the NFPA estimates that they contribute to about 160 home fires each year. Candles are far worse with about 7,400 home fires started by candles causing about 90 civilian deaths each year. The peak time of year for candle fires? December and January. Cooking is, of course, the leading cause of fire (heating is second), and experts warn never to use stoves to help keep your home warm.
Of course, some people will not take the time or trouble to take these precautions. They may think that a house fire is something that happens to other people. But the 8.6% rise in civilian fire deaths from 2020 to 2021 suggests everyone should take this threat seriously. In Maryland, as has happened in other states, the risk is particularly acute for non-white people, who constitute 48% of fire deaths, although only 42% of the overall population. The good news is that Maryland’s fire death rate is slightly better than its neighbors with 9.47 deaths per million population between 2015 and 2019 compared to Virginia (10.22), Pennsylvania (11.29), and Delaware (10.66).
Want to some added guidance on how best to make your home and family safer? One good resource if the National Fire Protection Association website, www.nfpa.org, which has extensive guidance on how to check smoke detectors, develop escape plans and make your home safer this winter — and year-round.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.