SC fire deaths up from 2013; fire marshal urging caution

COLUMBIA, S.C. - The state fire marshal urged residents Wednesday to use space heaters and wood stoves safely as temperatures drop below 20 degrees across South Carolina.

Alternative heating sources are the biggest cause of fires between December and March, when fire deaths tend to spike, Fire Marshal Robert Polk said.

According to his office, 94 people died in fires last year, 43 of them during those months. Sixteen people died in December alone. The total for 2014 is a nearly 50 percent increase from five years ago, when 63 people died, and the highest number of fire-related deaths since 2000. But Polk said it's too soon to call the rise to 94 a disturbing trend, as there were 13 fires last year resulting in multiple deaths.

"But it's far too high," Polk said. "Be aware of the fire hazards that you're creating."

Winter fires often result from people putting space heaters too close to their beds or windows, igniting bedding or curtains, Polk said.

At least 17 of last year's deaths resulted directly from alternate heating, according to reports gathered from the 520 fire departments across the state. Polk believes the number is actually higher, since some fires labeled as electrical are due to heating, including circuit overloads caused by plugging too much into outlets or extension cords.

"In a lot of cases, heating and electrical cases are comingled," he said.

To safely use a space heater, he said, ensure nothing's around it for 3 feet, and never leave home with it running.

If a fire occurs, get out and stay out. At least two of last year's deaths occurred after people exited safely and then went back into their homes, he said.

Low temperatures early Thursday will range from 11 in the Upstate to 22 in Charleston. The predicted low of 15 in Columbia comes close to the area's record low for Jan. 8, set in 1970 at 12 degrees, said National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Rohrbach.

The coldest it got in Columbia last year was 11 degrees on Jan. 25, a record low. Temperatures will begin warming Friday, he said.

Other tips from the fire marshal's office to stay warm safely:

- Turn off portable heaters when going to bed.

- Never use an oven to heat your home.

- Plug space heaters directly into wall outlets, not an extension cord or power strip.

- Keep the doors of your wood stove closed unless loading or stoking the live fire, and burn only dry, seasoned wood.