Fire safety tips

Keep anything that might catch on fire at least 3 feet away from furnaces, grates, fireplaces, wood stoves or space heaters.

Never use an oven to heat a house.

Never leave portable heaters running when you are not in the room.

Only use portable heaters that turn themselves off if they tip over.

If you have a fireplace, have the chimney inspected and cleaned every year.

Make sure your fireplace has a screen to keep embers from flying into the room.

Keep candles at least a foot away from anything that can catch fire.

Don't leave candles burning when you leave the room or go to bed.

Never cook or bake when you feel tired or have consumed alcohol.

Stay in the kitchen when you are frying, grilling or broiling food. If you leave the kitchen for even a short period, turn off the stove or oven.

Keep anything that can catch fire - oven mitts, wooden utensils, food packaging, towels - away from the stovetop.

Have smoke alarms throughout the house, and regularly test the batteries.

Charleston, North Charleston Fire Departments

As news of more cold weather comes our way, icy roads and bridges aren't the only danger to consider.

House fires increase when temperatures drop below freezing.

"Times of colder weather during winter months bring the highest number of home fires than any other time of the year," said Ryan Kunitzer with the Charleston Fire Department. "Each winter season, home fires increase in part due to heating and cooking fires."

A fatal house fire in Walterboro last month is a solemn reminder. Bessie Kittrell, a 73-year-old woman who survived lung cancer and a driveby shooting, died the morning of Jan. 24 when her house on McDaniel Street caught fire. Three family members were badly burned.

The mercury dropped to 19 degrees that morning, as an icy freeze shut down most of the Lowcountry for several days. The State Law Enforcement Division is still investigating the cause of the fire, according to spokesman Thom Berry; cold weather could have played a role.

January's cold spell sent the number of house fires soaring.

The Lowcountry chapter of the American Red Cross helped 185 families displaced by house fires in January, a 37 percent increase over 135 families helped the same month a year earlier.

Why the increase?

The weather may have been a factor. This January the Weather Service's local office recorded 15 days below freezing. That's almost half the month shivering. January 2013 posted just four days below 32 degrees.

On the other hand, the number of people who needed help last month was pushed up by a major apartment fire that happened on a day when the temperature was well above freezing. An early-morning fire on Jan. 21 at Woodbridge Apartments in West Ashley displaced about 35 residents who needed help from the Red Cross. That fire started before sunrise on a second-floor balcony.

Overall, the Charleston Fire Department handled 11 fires in January, just one more than the same month in 2013, Kunitzer said.

It's impossible to predict the weather for the rest of this month, said Mike Emlaw, a meteorologist with the Charleston office of the National Weather Service, but he added that last February the mercury dropped below freezing on five days.

With that in mind, now is the time to check your chimneys and space heaters, find a way to heat your house that doesn't use the kitchen stove, and review a few safety tips.

Whatever the weather, especially pay attention when you're cooking; it's the leading cause of house fires, Kunitzer said. Two of every five house fires nationally start in the kitchen, he said.

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.