Winter Is the Season for House Fires—Here's How to Prevent a Fire and Keep Your Home Safe

Follow these safety tips for cooking, lighting candles, using a portable space heater, and more.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, building fires tend to spike in the winter, in large part because of seasonal heating, such as fireplaces, space heaters, and furnaces. In fact, space heaters cause more than 1,000 home fires every year in the U.S. Add to that cooking fires (the leading cause of home fires, which peaks around the holidays), candle fires, and indoor smoking as people hesitate to brave the cold weather outside, and it's easy to see why house fires increase during the winter months. To help prevent a devastating fire in your own home, now is a great time to check the smoke detectors and follow these safety guidelines.

Test Your Smoke Detectors

Almost three out of five home fire deaths occurred in buildings without smoke alarms, according to data from the National Fire Protection Association. How many smoke alarms you need will depend on the size of your home, but at minimum, you want an alarm on every floor of your home, one in each bedroom, and one outside of each sleeping area. Special alarms with strobe lights and bed shakers can be installed for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Each alarm is different, so check the manual for any specific testing instructions, but in general, pressing down the "test" button for a few seconds should emit the loud, familiar siren. If the alarm fails to go off, or if you haven't changed the batteries in six months, replace them now with brand-new batteries. Once installed, test the alarm once more to make sure it works.

Did you know smoke detectors actually have an expiration date? Check your alarm's manual, but most smoke detectors only have a lifespan of eight to 10 years. Once you reach that point, replace the detector even if it seems to be working.

Light Candles Safely

Soft candlelight can make a cold winter night so much cozier—just be sure to follow a few safety precautions. "Keep the candle away from things that can catch fire. This includes curtains, lamp shades, bookshelves, and papers," says Kathy LaVanier a spokesperson for the National Candle Association and the CEO of Renegade Candle Company. Even if the candle is in a glass or metal container, it should be set on a ceramic plate or another fireproof holder, rather than placed directly on furniture. Most importantly, never leave a burning candle unattended and don't fall asleep with a candle burning.

A candle wick trimmer isn't just a quaint, old-fashioned home accessory—trimming candle wicks to 1/4-inch can help prevent a house fire, reduce smoke, and even help your expensive scented candles last longer. It's a win-win-win.

Prevent Cooking Fires

Cooking is the leading cause of home fires and fire injuries, but a few safety measures can help avoid a disaster. Always stay in the kitchen whenever you're frying, grilling, boiling, or broiling food. Avoid cooking or baking when you're really exhausted and likely to fall asleep. Take a look around your kitchen and move anything flammable—cookbooks, dishtowels, potholders—away from the stovetop.

Avoid Space Heater and Fireplace Fires

Step one: make sure anything flammable, whether fabrics, wooden furniture, or papers, are at least three feet away from your fireplace, space heater, or stove. "Turn off heaters and make sure fireplace embers are extinguished before leaving the room," says Jennifer Schallmoser, media relations coordinator at the National Safety Council. "If you must use a space heater, place it on a level, nonflammable surface, like ceramic tile, not on a rug or carpet," advises Schallmoser. When shopping for space heaters, look for ones with tip-over protection, which will automatically shut off if they're knocked over.

Cleaning out your fireplace regularly can also help avoid a house fire and prevent excessive smoke. It's a good idea to get your chimney inspected once per year; an expert can advise if cleaning or any repairs are necessary.

Stop Smoking Fires

This one's easy: institute a "no smoking in the house" policy, recommends Schallmoser. Smoking is the leading cause of fire deaths. When smoking outdoors, be sure to extinguish cigarettes completely.

Clean Your Dryer Vent

The frequency of dryer vent fires also peaks in the winter. "People tend to wear more clothing during the winter, increasing the amount of lint pulled through the lint screen and into the dryer," explains Scott Thomas, the director of systems at Dryer Vent Wizard, a Neighborly company. "More clothing and frequent clothing changes, especially if you have small children in the home, also means you're doing laundry more often." Lint is highly flammable, and when it builds up in hot enough temperatures, it can spark a fire. Thomas recommends having your dryer vent cleaned and inspected annually.

"If a dryer vent is blocked with snow and ice, the heat and lint produced by a dryer will have nowhere to escape," says Thomas. During the winter and after each snowstorm, check where the dryer vents to the outside, typically either at the side of the house or through the roof, and make sure it's not blocked with snow or ice. "You should see the vent operating and the flaps opening when the dryer is pushing out warm air."

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