Authorities urge safety over holiday

LAWRENCEVILLE - Last winter in Gwinnett, holiday fires and flare-ups put a damper on what should have been a festive season, displacing more than a dozen families and injuring several people.

The worst reported incident left 14 families without shelter on Christmas morning 2004 and five people injured after a fire ravaged Adelaide Apartments at 2445 Beaver Ruin Road in Norcross. Investigators believe that blaze started in a Christmas tree.

This year, officials want to prevent Christmas cheer from being ruined by the same type of misfortune. That's why firefighters have created a list of tips to help prevent these deadly, dangerous and destructive mishaps.

Cold weather always means an increase in the number of structural blazes, said Thomas Rutledge, spokesman for the Gwinnett County Fire Department. Many fires occur due to poorly maintained heating appliances and fireplaces or portable heaters placed too close to combustible materials.

"Home heating is a leading cause of residential fires here," Rutledge said.

In 2002, the latest year for which statistics were available, home heating equipment was involved in an estimated 45,500 home fires in the United States. The fires caused approximately 220 civilian fire deaths, 990 injuries and $449 million in property damages.

Rutledge recommends having furnaces and fireplace chimneys cleaned or serviced annually by a certified professional to help reduce chances of a fire starting. Space heaters should be kept away from clothing, boxes, furniture and other combustible materials.

Fireplaces and wood stoves are also popular ways to heat a home, especially with mounting electric bills. Check the damper in the fireplace to ensure it is open while the fireplace is in use. Never close the damper when hot ashes are still smoldering, Rutledge said.

Be aware that closing the damper could cause toxic levels of carbon monoxide to spread throughout the home. Placing a glass or metal screen in front of the fireplace can also help prevent hot embers from escaping and igniting furniture or carpeting.

When you're ready for bed, firefighters advise making sure the fireplace is out and then collecting ashes in a metal container. The metal container should be removed from the home and placed a safe distance away from it.

Children and pets should be kept far away from any heat-producing appliance, many of which are easily manipulated or knocked over, Rutledge said.

Just two days after Christmas last year, a small child living in a duplex off Singleton Road turned on the stove, which ignited a toy that was resting near a burner. A fire broke out in the building, causing major damage and displacing two families that were residing in the duplex.

Another danger is carbon monoxide, a byproduct of combustion whenever fuel is burned in gas or oil furnaces, water heaters, and other appliances. It can kill or cause long-lasting health problems by keeping oxygen from getting to the body. Early signs of carbon monoxide poisoning include headaches, sleepiness, nausea and dizziness. If you suddenly feel these symptoms, open all the doors and windows to ventilate your home.

If fresh air relieves the symptoms, have your home heating appliances checked, Rutledge said. For more information, contact the programs and services section of the Gwinnett County Department of Fire and Emergency Services at 678-518-4850.

Safety tips

•Install carbon monoxide alarms and smoke alarms. Also keep escape ladders and fire extinguishers on-hand.

•Take extra care with live Christmas trees. As they begin to dry out, they can easily catch fire.

•Have furnaces and fireplace chimneys cleaned or serviced annually by a certified professional.

•Check the damper in the fireplace to make sure it is open before lighting a fire. Never close the damper when hot ashes are still smoldering. Also, place a screen in front of the fireplace to help prevent hot embers from escaping.

•Keep children and pets away from space heaters or other heat-producing appliances that can be tampered with or knocked over.