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February 18, 2020

12/25/2019 7:26:00 AM
A fire not so delightful: Winter fire safety and prevention
Kayla Houp
Of the Lakeland Times

Winter has finally settled in and with it comes the importance of winter fire safety and prevention.

While the main causes of house fires in the winter have changed over the years, heating sources such as chimneys, furnaces and space heaters are among several of the main fire hazards in the winter.

"Chimney fires are really common in the wintertime," Woodruff fire chief Victor Gee said. "People don't necessarily clean out their chimneys the way they should, and then they get a buildup of creosote in there."

That creosote can then catch fire, causing chimney fires.

According to Arbor Vitae fire chief Mike Van Meter, chimneys should be professionally cleaned and inspected in the fall before people start using them, and then once again halfway through the season if people are burning more frequently.

In addition to proper maintenance of heating systems, Van Meter advised paying attention to Christmas tree maintenance.

"The biggest thing there is, they gotta make sure they keep that tree watered. It's something that should be checked daily and watered daily," Van Meter said.

Christmas tree maintenance also includes making sure decorations are in good shape, and keeping the tree away from heat sources, such as a furnace or wood burner.

While the Arbor Vitae Fire Department hasn't seen any fires in recent years that resulted from faulty Christmas decorations, Van Meter said people tend to overload outlets in their homes with space heaters and Christmas decor, creating a potential fire hazard.

Other hazards and prevention

Buildup of snow and ice on appliance vents can also pose a serious threat to homes during the winter, as blocked vents can trap carbon monoxide indoors.

"We've responded to a lot of carbon monoxide calls. It's very important to make sure that homeowners keep their furnace vents clear of snow and ice," Van Meter said.

When it comes to carbon monoxide detectors, Van Meter said homeowners needed to be aware the devices have a shelf life and need to be replaced approximately every 10 years.

"Working smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are two of the most important things to have in the wintertime," Minocqua assistant fire chief Mark Vapnar said.

According to Gee, once carbon monoxide detectors start sounding, the best thing to do is to leave the building and contact the heating contractor to diagnose the issue.

"The furnaces and things like that are much better than they used to be," Gee said. "So, while it's still a serious thing, it's probably not as common as it used to be."

Gee, Van Meter, and Vapnar also advised against overloading circuits and recommend circuits used for lighting or heating are rated for the devices homeowners are plugging into them, as well as providing heaters enough space around them to prevent hazards.

'If we can't get to you, we can't help you'

Though chimney fires, improperly used heaters and furnaces, unattended candles, and Christmas trees often create fire hazards during the winter, an often unrecognized hazard comes from other sources, including buried fire hydrants.

"In town, if you have a fire hydrant near your home, you can help the fire department by keeping that cleared out," Gee said, adding that while town crews and sanitary districts will clear the fire hydrants, residents being proactive in keeping them clear was "for the benefit of them and their neighbors."

Vapnar said access to water, as well as road conditions and temperatures, were among some of the difficulties the department faced during the wintertime over the summertime.

"We can get water anywhere around here, but now in the wintertime, we're drilling through ice to get water or we're having to get a hydrant," he said.

In addition to buried fire hydrants, unplowed or unshoveled driveways and sidewalks were also an obstacle.

"A lot of people need to remember they need to keep their driveways plowed," he said. "We have large equipment and we have to get in there."

Buried sidewalks and driveways, along with poor winter road conditions can increase fire department response times and make it more difficult, and dangerous, for first responders.

"We're already at a disadvantage, because we're volunteers, but then in turn, if the road conditions are bad or there's a lot of snow, it takes us longer to respond," Vapnar said.

Another impediment comes in the form of buried fire numbers.

"In the middle of the night, we're looking for addresses and they're buried under snow piles, it usually delays our response time," Van Meter said. "If we can't find you, we can't help you."

Though clear driveways and sidewalks make response easier for the local departments, it is also safer for residents.

"You need two means of egress," Van Meter said. "A lot of times people don't shovel their decks or back door, then, when you really need it, you have a hard time getting out of it."

A positive outlook

Though winter fires remain a concern throughout the area, there has been a drop in structure fires in the Northwoods in recent years.

Vapnar attributed the drop in structure fires compared to when he first started with the Minocqua Fire Department to residents being cautious and "paying attention" as well as business inspections.

"It's not us. It's the people, the community doing their part in being safe. It really is," he said.

Kayla Houp may be reached via email at

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