Editorial: The winter's spate of fire and tragedy

  • At least 21 suburbs have experienced house fires since winter weather began, including Buffalo Grove, where the occupants of this fire escaped unharmed. In other fires, a total of 12 people have died.

      At least 21 suburbs have experienced house fires since winter weather began, including Buffalo Grove, where the occupants of this fire escaped unharmed. In other fires, a total of 12 people have died. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
Updated 2/6/2021 5:29 PM

Every winter, it seems, we get the sense that there are a lot of house fires. It's usually because there are.

This winter is no different. "Gosh," one of our editors said to widespread agreement from many colleagues, "it seems like we've been covering a lot of house fires."

 

So we checked.

By our count, fires have struck homes in 21 suburbs since the winter weather began. Most likely, we're missing some.

Even worse, the suburbs have witnessed 12 deaths, including four children. It's been an awful winter of fire and tragedy. And with a long week of subzero temperatures ahead of us, we may be in store for even more tragedies.

As we've said in this space before, holiday decorations, frozen pipes, fireplaces and the need to stay warm provide a combustible mix. In combination or individually, these factors can be culprits in sparking a blaze that can cause destruction.

Survivors of a house fire often describe frightening moments before and after the first flames appear. They tell of what it's like to wonder where they'll go to live and how they'll cope with the loss of a lifetime of personal possessions.

So, how can you keep your house from being next? Fire experts offer several tips.

• Space heaters: The devices always should be plugged directly into a wall outlet and should never be left unattended. Combustible materials should be kept away from space heaters. Buy a unit that automatically shuts off if it tips over or malfunctions.

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• Fireplaces: Have your chimney cleaned and inspected by a qualified professional. Open the flue before starting the fire and make sure to have a sturdy screen to prevent sparks from entering the living space.

• Warming the house: Never use kitchen appliances as supplemental heating devices. A range or oven can be a source of toxic fumes, and burning charcoal indoors can produce lethal amounts of carbon monoxide.

• Decorations: Candles can be hazardous when they burn too low, are left unattended or burn too close to flammable materials. Consider using flameless candles.

• Frozen pipes: If pipes freeze, never try to thaw them using propane or a kerosene heater. Call a plumber instead.

• Fire safety equipment: Working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors should be placed on each level of the house and near sleeping spaces. A certified, multipurpose fire extinguisher can be used to eliminate fires confined to small areas, such as in wastebaskets.

• Prevent a fire from spreading: Closing doors is the simplest and most efficient way to contain a fire and prevent it from spreading.

It's unclear what winter conditions have contributed to the spate of fires that have struck the suburbs. Each case is different. But the season does pose unique risks. Be sure to take precautions that will reduce them for you and your family.

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