Last week a house on James Island was heavily damaged by fire because the resident left a space heater plugged in to an extension cord running in the family room overnight.
Charleston Fire Marshal Mike Julazadeh said he sees these kinds of mistakes all the time, and the resident was lucky to survive.
The fire destroyed the room but burned itself out once it used up all the oxygen, Julazadeh said. He said the resident was saved because she was down the hall behind a closed bedroom door.
On the other hand, having the door closed kept her from hearing the smoke alarm that went off when fire filled the family room, he said. She didn’t know there had been a fire until she woke up and smelled smoke and saw the mess.
This is the time of year when local, state and federal safety officials put out notices reminding people that house fires increase as the weather drops.
It’s typical for the temperature to drop into the mid-30s at night in the Charleston area this time of year, although the mercury can dip well below freezing in a cold snap. It’s nowhere near the chill in the North but enough that you need some heat, and there are a lot of older houses in the Lowcountry with no central heating.
Fire deaths typically increase by 63 percent during the winter months, according to State Fire Marshal Bert Polk.
No fire fatalities were reported last year in the city of Charleston, Julazadeh said. One person died in a house fire last year in North Charleston, but it was not determined what caused it, according to Bianca Bourbeau, the department’s safety educator.
But fatal or not, nobody wants a house fire, and local firefighters see a lot of them caused by some basic mistakes.
Not everybody goes out and buys the kind of space heater that shuts itself off automatically if it tips over, Bourbeau said. People plug them in to extension cords and power strips, which are not designed to deliver the necessary power and overheat. Or they leave the heaters near clothes that catch on fire.
A space heater left too close to a chair caused a fire that seriously burned an 8-year-old girl in Lake City shortly before Halloween. Danny Gaskins, now a captain with the Charleston department, and Lake City firefighters John Baker and Craig Healy got citations from Florence County Council for pulling Ja’Niya Holmes from the burning house. She was treated at the Augusta Burn Center and released.
Firefighters sometimes go into burning houses and discover the fire was caused by residents leaving the oven on high and the door open all night for warmth, Bourbeau said.
Then there are the chimney fires in houses that burn wood for warmth.
Kerosene heaters catch on fire after somebody didn’t take it outside to fill it and spilled some of the fuel near the heater.
Besides fire, another real danger from kerosene heaters is carbon monoxide poisoning. Any home that uses a kerosene heater should have a carbon-monoxide detector, which sounds an alarm when the odorless gas gets in the air.
A portable gas generator also emits carbon monoxide and should never be used inside a house or near a window. Two bodies were found inside a Summerville house beside a portable gas generator about two years ago, and investigators suspect the 31-year-old man and woman died of carbon monoxide poisoning or asphyxiation.
Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.