Caution urged as temperatures dip below freezing

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Black ice, carbon monoxide and faulty space heaters -- oh, my!

An earlier-than-usual first freeze warning for much of north Georgia this weekend provided safety experts the chance to remind Gwinnett residents of dangers inherent in colder weather.

On the heels of a boiling summer and frenetic early fall, residents might easily forget that winter usually brings higher house-fire rates. Or that sprinkler systems can be deadly for motorists.

The National Weather Service, which issued its first freeze warning for Gwinnett on Friday, predicts temps to dip as low as 27 degrees tonight. Highs are predicted to shy far from the average of 66 degrees.

The first freeze for most of Gwinnett historically comes next week, according to NWS data.

Gwinnett Fire Department spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge reported 10 percent more house fires and smoke scares (918 total) last winter versus last summer. Carbon monoxide alarms were 5 percent more frequent in the same time period, he said.

"Improper home heating is a leading cause of residential fires in Gwinnett County," he said.

Cold-weather hazards aren't just relegated to homes.

Georgia Department of Transportation officials reminded folks with automatic sprinkler systems to turn them off overnight. The unintended result could be "black ice," or water frozen on roadways.

"Every year we see accidents caused by icy spots formed when water from sprinkler systems gets onto the roadway," said Teri Pope, GDOT spokeswoman.

Rutledge said many house fires can be traced to poorly maintained heating appliances, or those placed too close to combustibles like clothing, boxes and furniture.

He offered these additional tips:

* Keep children and pets away from heat sources, and never leave space heaters unattended;

* Purchase and use space heaters that have an independent testing laboratory label and built-in safety features;

* If a furnace smokes when it's activated for the first time, call the fire department; a slight burning smell or light haze of dust inside the home is normal;

* Use only a fireplace or wood stove that has been installed properly. Chimneys should be cleaned and inspected annually by a qualified technician;

* Before slumbering, make sure the fire in the fireplace is completely out. Leave the damper open until ashes or glowing embers have cooled;

* Never attempt to use a range top stove or oven as a heat source;

* Install working CO alarms.

For more information on fire safety, call the Gwinnett Fire Community Risk Reduction/Education Section at 678-518-4850 or e-mail: fireprograms@gwinnettcounty.com.