There’s a saying in Texas; “If you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes.” This year North Texans had to wait an entire month for the weather to change as they endured record snowfall. Although snow in the Sun Belt has turned to rain, many regions are still facing several more weeks of freezing temperatures. As we naturally tend to focus on the risks of heavy snow fall and icy roads, we may overlook another major winter hazard: house fires.
According to the American Red Cross, most American families have not educated their children about house fires, practiced fire drills or established a safe place to meet outside the home. Although the majority of fire-related fatalities are due to cigarette fires, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, the primary cause of residential fires is cooking and the second most common cause of home fires comes from heating elements and open flame fires.
Kitchens are a primary fire hazard
A kitchen fire may not spread throughout your home, but the resulting soot and smoke can do considerable damage. An open flame such as a candle, match or fireplace is hot and can spread quickly, spiraling out of control in a few minutes. Potholders or clothing can easily catch fire, and elderly homeowners may leave pots unattended. Don’t leave candles burning, do keep matches out of reach of children and cover fireplaces with a screen.
The most lethal fires are slow burning ones caused by a cigarette ember or an electric heating element. These low profile fires often smolder undetected for hours, only to erupt in full force after everyone is asleep. The danger is two-fold; the fire itself plus the toxic fumes that cause smoke inhalation and prevent family members from waking up to escape the danger. Extinguish cigarettes thoroughly. Clear a space of three feet around heaters and heating elements to prevent furniture, drapes and other flammables from burning. Watch children closely to prevent burns and clothing fires. If not caught immediately, fires can cause significant damage and even make your home a total loss, leaving you stranded in cold temperatures without shelter or clothing.
A large amount of snow and ice on your roof may be heavy enough to cause your roof to cave in. Don’t allow more than six inches of snow to accumulate before shoveling your roof and breaking up ice. Keep an eye on ice-laden tree branches that could break. Also, remove ice and debris from gutters, ensuring melting snows can run off freely and prevent water seepage. If you don’t feel comfortable climbing around in icy weather, hire a contractor.
Frozen pipes and resulting water bursts are another major winter hazard. Keep the thermostat set on 65 degrees or higher to ensure the pipes inside your walls remain heated to 55 degrees. Let water drip from faucets when temperatures drop. Hire a professional to drain your water system, including pool plumbing, if you will be away for an extended time or freezing temperatures are expected.
Review your homeowner’s insurance policy carefully to understand how you are insured for fire and damage from snow and ice. Does your policy offer replacement cost coverage or actual cash value? Do you understand the implications of burden of proof? Does your policy cover named or unnamed perils? For example, many people don’t realize coverage for damage from floods and earthquakes requires separate policies. Contact your insurance professional to answer questions and determine if you need additional coverage.
One last safety tip
FEMA lists smoke inhalation as the primary cause of fatalities. Functional smoke alarms are of critical importance to your family’s survival, along with awareness and a family plan. Follow this link to a comprehensive brochure about smoke alarms and fire safety: FEMA Brochure.