Written by Susan Wolf Monday, 09 January 2012 10:00
Stamford that took the lives of three children and their grandparents is a ghastly reminder about the need for fire safety.
Stamford fire officials say the fire was caused by fireplace ashes and embers that had been placed in the rear corner of the house near a mudroom and trash bin enclosure. The hardwired fire alarm system was not connected, and it was not certain t hat the home had battery-operated smoke detectors.
Georgetown Fire Marshal Joe Paola recalled a fire in Georgetown five yeas ago that involved legal fireworks that had been shot off on new Year’s Eve. The debris from the fireworks was gathered and put into a plastic bag, which was then placed in a plastic trash can by the corner of the house.
The debris caught the house on fire, mr. Paola said.
If the debris had been placed outside in a meal container with a non-combustible lid, the combustibles inside would have died out, he said.
“Apparently the ashes from the fireplace in the Stamford house were placed in a combustible container and the people didn’t think about that,” he said.
Mr. Paola said there are instances of fires started like this throughout the country and the state. “It happens all of the time.”
He said plastic burns well. “We refer to it as gasoline in solid form,” mr. Paola said.
“House fires are so horrific because there is a lot of combustible material in furnishings,” he explained. Fire growth in a house has been much faster in the last 10 to 15 years, he added.
“It was a lot slower 20 years ago because of the materials used,” he said, pointing to old couches that had cotton and matting and not foam. now, he added, many kitchen appliances have plastic in them as well.
“Now the burn growth in some room fires can go to fully involvement in two to three minutes,” he said. And the temperature in a house fire can easily get to 800 degrees to 1,000 degrees, said mr. Paola. “What kills people is the super heated smoke.”
The fire marshals keep telling people to use smoke detectors, and those who have them don’t always put batteries in them, he said.
“Every year we emphasize that people should change their smoke detector batteries with the change in time,” he said.
Over the last two years, mr. Paola said, there have been several fires where there were no batteries in the houses’ smoke detectors. there should be a smoke detector on every level of a house — from the basement to the top floor — in each bedroom and in the hall outside bedrooms, he said.
Fire codes for new single family homes require that all of these detectors be wired together — interconnected. so if a fire starts in the basement, the detector there will go off, as well as all of the other detectors in the house.
Without the wiring, a detector could go off in the basement, but would not necessarily be heard in an upstairs bedroom with a closed door. The other detectors would go off as the fire reached each level in the house, but then there is less time to get out, mr. Paola said.
In a new house, burglar and fire alarms can be incorporated together to interconnect, said mr. Paola.
In the late ’80s and ’90s, he said, the code said the detectors had to meet audibility requirements, but most people didn’t think they also had to interconnect the alarms, mr. Paola said. From the ’90s on, the codes reflect the interconnecting requirement, he said, and added that wired-in alarms also have battery backups.
While the concern for having smoke detectors is year-round, there are some fire safety concerns that arise with the change in weather.
Chimney fires become a concern with cooler weather.
“Don’t try to heat the whole house with a fireplace,” said mr. Paola.
He recalled a fire investigation several years ago where it was determined the integrity of the brick in the fire box was breached at the joint. The fire from the fireplace got through this breach and in another place mortar was missed. The fire made its way to the garage and caught wood stored there on fire. The people in the house called the fire department in time, he said, so what could have been a major fire was averted.
When using a fireplace, don’t burn wrapping paper in it, said mr. Paola. he also said a fireplace should be cleaned once a year. he cleans his own fireplace, but there are chimney sweep services in the area.
Chimney cleaning is done to remove creosote. Creosote is a gummy corrosive that is an extremely combustible substance which coats the inside of a chimney. it is a result of the burning process.
“Creosote builds up and clogs the flue. If it catches fire, it sounds like a freight train and can attack the integrity of the chimney and fireplace. it can ultimately break out of the chimney and into the structure,” mr. Paola said.
Brian McCulloch, who runs Fairfield County clean Sweep of Roxbury, which serves Redding, said it is best to have your chimney cleaned in the spring, which is off season. by doing it in the fall, there may be a wait of several weeks.
Regardless of how one uses their fireplace, mr. McCulloch said a chimney should “at least” be inspected every year and then cleaned if necessary. there are a number of variables, such as chimney height, the size of the flue and the quality of the wood burned — mr. McCulloch said he uses hard woods in his fireplace and prefers oak — that are involved with how often a chimney should be cleaned, he said.
A chimney cleaning usually runs between $95 and $125, he said. “That a fair price range,” he said, adding the cost depends on the flue cleaning, chimney height and difficulty of getting to the top of the chimney, among other things. to clean a chimney takes about an hour, he said.
And No, he doesn’t come wearing a long, dark coat and a black top hat.
Mr. McCulloch said beware of the scam artists who say they are chimney cleaners. A lot of these people convince their victims that they need expensive repairs.
Mr. McCulloch advises calling the better Business Bureau and to “always use local people.”
Dave Burns of Weston, a certified chimney sweep, said the most common scenario is that someone will cold call and offer a free or very inexpensive chimney inspection.
Mr. Burns owns and operates August West Chimney Sweeps in Weston. “We never cold call,” mr. Burns said, adding that legitimate chimney sweeps rarely do.
Scammers, however, will typically pretend they did work for a previous homeowner or say they are in the neighborhood and offer to do an inspection, mr. Burns said. Then they will say they have discovered a major problem that must be fixed immediately to avoid an emergency — and the fix can run into the thousands of dollars.
Not only can homeowners be financially fleeced by unscrupulous chimney sweep scammers, they can put themselves in greater danger by thinking their chimneys have been properly cleaned, when in fact they have not, mr. Burns said.
Mr. Burns recommends always checking feedback and references online or with neighbors or friends before having anyone come to do work in the home.
Wood stoves are another area where creosote can build up. mr. Paola said while wood stoves do not burn as hot as a fireplace, three is a lot of smoldering and a quick build-up of creosote.
“Check for it once a month,” he said. “You have to keep abreast of this.”
There are a lot of variables, said mr. Paola, pointing to things like the type of wood used and how wet the wood is. he said it is best to use hard wood that is pretty dry and seasoned.
Those who use space heaters are reminded to use care and keep them way from combustibles. “These devices list what watts they draw,” he said. If using an extension cord, he recommends buying the physical length and capacity that is needed.
“Some space heaters use 1,200 to 1,500 watts. “Use the extension cord sized for it,” he said.
Another area mr. Paola pointed to was circuit breakers. If a circuit breaker trips and does it again, “you’d better find out why,” he said. he also said circuit breakers should be turned off and on at least once a year.
For more fire safety information, go to the National Fire Protection Association’s website: nfpa.org.
Weston Forum Editor Kim
Donnelly contributed to this story.
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