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Officials urge caution during home fire season

Take cautious approach during home fire season

The Red Cross said cooking fires are the number one cause of home fires, and year after year Thanksgiving is the peak day for these tragedies.

It's beginning to be a busy time of year for local Red Cross volunteers trained to aid those whose homes are damaged by fires. In a recent two-week span, volunteers were dispatched to six damaged homes in Berkeley and Dorchester counties alone.

The combination of using alternative sources of heat to deal with the colder temperatures and a bustling kitchen during the holiday season means the winter months is the season for homes fires. Thanksgiving is one of the busiest days for fire departments.

"Every day, people's lives are devastated by home fires — a threat that's increasing as winter approaches," said Rod Tolbert, chief executive officer of the Red Cross of South Carolina.

Many home fires begin when someone leaves a pot on too long in the kitchen or when a deep fryer is improperly used to heat the garage. Other times, as the weater becomes colder, those without working HVAC units turn to alternative forms of heat.

“The number one thing is people just trying to stay warm, and sometimes they may not have a working heating unit and they will do anything to stay warm,” said Lt. Colt Roy, public information officer with the Whitesville Fire Department in Berkeley County. “Sometimes it’s misuse of items ... . It could be a store bought heater that’s close to something like curtains or blankets. Or it could be a gas stove with an open flame.”

Fires can break out in any home, but Roy added they're especially dangerous in a home without a working smoke detector — an item handed out at most fire stations.

“They are free,” said Roy. “And most departments will come and put them in your house for free.”

Roy urged residents to ensure flamable items are not too close to an open flame or other heat source. He said to check chimneys and warned against heating the home in an area where a fire can quickly get out of control. He said tried-and-true common sense is the best defense to prevent life-changing fires.

“Sometimes it is common sense — you kind of look at someone and say, ‘What were you thinking?’" Roy said. "But sometimes it’s genuine mistakes or an accident. You might have the three foot of space, but something happens that puts a flammable object close (to a heating source).” 

Statewide, the Red Cross spent over $1 million last year to help people due to home fires.

“Typically, that’s money to cover the cost of a hotel stay for a night or two, to replace their clothes that they have lost, to replace the food they may have lost in their kitchen and hygiene items,” said Mandy Mcwhorter, interim regional communications director for the Red Cross of South Carolina. “Often times, we hear from families who have suffered a home fire, and they left without their shoes on because they were just trying their best to escape the fire.”

“The unfortunate fact is a large percentage of Americans don’t have just $400 to help get them through an emergency, so the Red Cross is really that link that helps them on that road to recovery,” Mcwhorter added.