Fire officials warn of winter dangers

A couple of weeks ago, someone living in the outskirts of Brookline got very lucky.

A passerby noticed smoke coming from the front porch and called for help, and fire damage was confined to a small area of the porch.

The problem was wood ashes – a common cause of winter fires when they aren’t disposed of properly, Brookline Assistant Fire Chief Scott Knowles said.

January is a peak month for house fires, and local fire officials have some tips for avoiding the devastation of a winter fire.

These fires are usually caused by heating equipment, and on average, wood stoves, fireplaces and other forms of alternate heat are involved in more than 60,000 reported U.S. home structure fires a year, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

“While these numbers are frightening, nearly all of these fires are preventable,” J. William Degnan, state fire marshal, said in one of his recent newsletters.

That Brookline porch fire could have been a catastrophe, but it wouldn’t have happened if the ashes had been in a metal container with a lid, and outside – at least 10 feet from the house – Knowles said.

“We try to educate people through the schools and through senior citizens,” he said, “but the gap is parents” who never learned or forgot the basics of fire safety.

Wood stoves come to mind when Merrimack Fire Marshall John Manuele is asked about winter fire safety.

So far this winter, there have been no structure fires in Merrimack, but last February, an elderly couple lost their home after a fire in a wood stove spread to the rest of the house – which had been in their family for generations.

The usual cause of a chimney fire, Manuele said, is a chimney that hasn’t been maintained or combustible material – including wood – that is too close to the stove.

And he repeated Knowles’ message: Storing ashes in a plastic container or leaving them on a deck or in a garage is always a bad idea.

In Bedford, Scott Hunter, the Fire Department’s fire inspector, said there have been several near disasters in recent years when people didn’t dispose of ashes correctly.

“The porch doesn’t count” as outside, he said. People believe the ashes are totally cool when they are not, and then put them in a combustible container.

Sometimes, Hunter said, homeowners are conscientious about the installation and regular inspection of their wood stoves, but don’t realize their wood shouldn’t be stored near the stove.

So far this season there have been two chimney fires in Bedford. Luckily, they didn’t amount to anything serious, but the risks could have been avoided with more attention to safety, including chimney inspection, Hunter said.

“Most homeowners don’t have the right tools” for an adequate inspection, while some chimney sweeping companies now use cameras, he said.

“The technology has grown for properly inspecting inside the chimney.”

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 304, or kcleveland@cabinet.com.