By Gordon Williams 

There is nothing as comforting as a blast of heat on a wintry day. That’s why we fill our homes with devices that generate heat on command. 

Figures from the American Red Cross show that “nearly half of American families use alternative heating sources such as space heaters, fireplaces or wood/coal stoves to stay warm.” All such devices are safe if used and maintained properly. Keep in mind that if anything gets hot enough, it can — and will — explode into flames. When a home heating device does ignite, it can injure —even kill — and cause great property damage. 

How real is the risk of fire from a heat source? Very real, says the National Fire Protection Assn (NFPA), a non-profit entity that works to reduce death, injury, and property loss from fire. NFPA figures show nearly 50,000 home fires a year are started by home heating gear. “These fires,” says the NFPA, “resulted in 500 civilian deaths, 1,350 civilian injuries, and $1.1 billion in direct property damage.” The worst months for heating fires are December, January and February.   

So how do you keep warm in winter, without putting life and property at risk? 

Start by heeding fire safety advice from the Red Cross. A major Red Cross initiative called the Home Fire Campaign works to reduce home fire deaths by installing smoke alarms in homes that lack them. Along with those alarms — installed at no cost to recipients — the Red Cross publishes a trove of fire prevention information. When it comes to home heating devices, the Red Cross advises: 

  • Keep all potential sources of fuel like paper, clothing, bedding or rugs at least three feet away from space heaters, stoves or fireplaces. Portable heaters and fireplaces should never be left unattended. Turn off space heaters and make sure any embers in the fireplace are extinguished before going to bed or leaving home. 
  • Never use a cooking range or oven to heat your home. 
  • Keep fire in your fireplace by using a glass or metal fire screen large enough to catch sparks and rolling logs.
  • Have wood and coal stoves, fireplaces, chimneys and furnaces professionally inspected and cleaned once a year. 

The home fire risk is greatest from space heaters. Figures from the NFPA show that space heaters account for 44 percent of all home heating fires, but 81 percent of all deaths are caused by home heating devices. Here’s what the Red Cross has to say about space heater safety: 

  • If you must use a space heater, place it on a hard and non-flammable surface (such as a ceramic tile floor). 
  • When buying a space heater, look for models that shut off automatically if the heater falls over. (If you have a heater that lacks a kill switch, dump it.) 
  • Keep children and pets away from space heaters.  

Heat-generating devices draw too much current to be used safely with an extension cord. Plug them directly into a wall outlet. Do check the electric cord and plug frequently for wear and damage. Replace the heater if anything is in less than perfect condition. 

Nothing tops an electric blanket for keeping you toasty on the coldest nights. But, since electric blankets are heat-generating electric appliances just as space heaters are, how safe are they? The Electric Blanket Institute says they are quite safe if used and maintained properly.  

Buy a blanket that features a thermostat or temperature gauge. The control keeps the temperature at a comfortable level — warm but not too hot. “Working at lower temperatures significantly decreases the chances that the blanket will overheat,” says the Institute. 

You can safely wash and dry an electric blanket if you follow these safety rules: 

  • Use cold temperatures for both washing and drying.   
  • Dry the blanket in a dryer but not for longer than 15 minutes.  
  • Never use an old blanket that shows signs of tears, discolorations, stains, poking wires, etc.  If you spot any wires poking through the fabric, dump the blanket immediately.  
  • To store the blanket when not in use, put it on a flat surface, fold loosely and unplug the cords and controls. Place it in a plastic bag and keep it in a dry place. 

Lastly, make the most of the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign by installing smoke alarms in your dwelling. The Red Cross says that no matter what caused a home fire, “having working smoke alarms reduces one’s chances of dying in a fire by nearly half.” 

For more from the Red Cross on fire prevention, visit redcross.org/homefire.  

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