Chief: 'fire prevention is not a one time thing'
Camden — Friday, Nov. 9, an early morning fire claimed the lives a 30-year-old Orrington man and his three children; and the mother of the children and sole survivor of the fire was hospitalized for smoke inhalation, said Maine State Police Spokesman Steve McCausland in a written statement. McCausland's statement said the blaze was Maine's deadliest in 20 years. An investigation by the fire marshal determined that the fire was caused by empty cardboard boxes stored too close to a wood-burning stove.
With winter edging closer and heating season underway Camden Fire Chief Chris Farley and Firefighter Cheyne Hansen said fire prevention is as important as ever.
"Fire prevention is not a one-time thing," Farley said. "It's almost a daily thing. It's about being cautious on a regular basis."
Hansen echoed the sentiments.
"Every time you cross the road you look both ways, every time," Hansen said.
Farley and Hansen explained that annual and daily routines can be germane to preventing house fires. Fire departments recommend changing smoke detector batteries annually on a day that's easy to remember, such as a birthday or when daylight savings time begins. The firefighters also underscored the importance of maintenance; Farley said cleaning the chimney and having the furnace cleaned are important, as is ensuring that the exhaust remains clear around propane monitor heaters. Additionally, dryer vents should be checked regularly to ensure ventilation pipes are clear and lint should be removed from the dryer upon each use.
Farley noted sometimes people attempt to conserve the heat produced by the dryer by tampering with the vent, and noted that it is an unsafe idea.
"Make sure the vent is unobstructed," Hansen added.
Farley said materials including kindling, cardboard and newspapers routinely burned inside a wood stove should be stored at a minimum distance from the stove.
"In a nutshell combustible materials should be stored at least 3-feet away," he explained. He said radiant heat from a wood stove can cause flammable materials to ignite as the air around the stove heats up.
"Everything has it's ignition point," he said, adding the ignition temperature varies for different materials — for example, paper and cardboard ignite at a lower temperature than wood kindling.
"A single piece of paper will ignite more quickly then a ream of paper," Farley said.
Hansen and Farley also cautioned against the dangers of using accelerants to hasten the start of a fire, especially inside a stove.
"Gasoline is explosive and it doesn't take much," Farley said. "To say it's explosive is not over-sensationalizing it."
Hansen explained vapors emitted by gasoline are the most flammable.
"The more the gasoline has a chance to vaporize, the more trouble you're in," he said, noting when gasoline spreads across a large surface — such as in a puddle on asphalt — the vapors become an even greater fire hazard.
Farley said putting gasoline in a wood stove "allows the vapors to collect" essentially creating the explosiveness and danger that he likened to a that of a bomb.
Farley said one of the main things in ensuring woodstove safety is proper installation of the appliance. He cited a document prepared by the Office of the State Fire Marshal and the Maine Office of Energy Resources titled Recommended Standards for the Installation of Woodburning Stoves as a good resource. He noted that the document is available on the fire marshal's website and he has linked a PDF to the Facebook page of the Camden Fire Department.
Hansen and Farley said ashes from a woodstove should be stored properly and said placing them in an open bucket in a basement or garage can lead to danger since there are often still-hot coals lingering, hidden within the ashes. If there are accelerants nearby, the coals can be enough to catalyze a fire, they warned.
"Using a metal bucket with a lid is definitely the way to go," Hansen added. "An open bucket won't trap the heat."
Space heaters should be researched before purchase, Hansen said. He and Farley recommend purchasing a space heater only after reviewing ratings from an independent testing agency. When using a space heater it's imperative that it be kept away from plush rugs and curtains. Nothing should ever be thrown at or draped over a space heater.
"The heater should be kept free and clear from anything," said Hansen. "Make sure you're only using it when you're in the room."
Smoke detectors should be installed with strategic placement in mind; Hansen and Farley recommend a smoke detector on every floor of a home. They said ideally each bedroom in a home should contain a smoke detector and that an additional smoke detector be placed in the hallway. They also recommended carbon monoxide detectors be placed in a home and in the garage. Both cautioned against placing smoke detectors directly over a woodstove or fireplace where detectors will likely be triggered unintentionally, eventually provoking some people to remove the batteries.
Farley and Hansen said anyone who needs smoke detectors, but finds the cost prohibitive, can call Camden Fire Department at 236-7950 the non-emergency number. The fire department has batteries and smoke detectors on hand that are surplus from a 2009 grant.
"If you need smoke detectors and can't afford them, call and we will bring you some, if you need batteries call and we will bring you some," Farley said.
Farley said people commonly think the fire department's phone number is 911.
"911 is the number that gets called when fire prevention activities fail," he said. "We're here, that's what our job is."
Farley said residents should also call if they have neighbors who might need assistance with obtaining and installing fire prevention devices.
"If you know a neighbor we need to check on, let us know," Farley said.
Farley and Hansen said holiday decorations and space heaters should always be plugged directly into a wall outlet and with appropriate cords. Compromised cords should always be replaced and with the appropriate plug, Hansen said. An appliance with a three-pronged plug should never be used if the third prong is bent or broken, he added. Additionally cords should never be run underneath carpets or furniture as friction can be generated by walking over a cord.
In addition to dangers presented by fire, Farley and Hansen explained that carbon monoxide gas can be a sneaky danger. Farley recalled an ambulance call several years ago from a furnace repairman who discovered a couple passed out on the floor at their home just a few hours after they reported their furnace was malfunctioning.
"It's odorless, tasteless and you don't know it's there," Farley said of carbon monoxide gas.
He and Hansen said CO detectors are readily available at local hardware stores. They said the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include dizziness, nausea and sleepiness that may mirror the onset of a cold. Hansen said activities like working on a running vehicle in a closed garage should be done with caution.
"It's going to have some effect on your body," said Hansen of inhaling carbon monoxide.
Hansen and Farley also recommended that families practice an escape route and have a plan in place in the event of fire.
Courier Publications reporter Jenna Lookner can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org