May 25, 2018
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Fire safety important in winter

By Russ Van Arsdale Executive director Northeast Contact, Special to the BDN

With Maine’s weather turning colder, our thoughts turn to the rising cost of keeping warm. Our column this week includes an appeal not to trade safety for savings.

House fires become more frequent during the heating season. Fires tend to happen when we are at our most vulnerable: in the early morning hours when we’re least physically or mentally prepared to deal with an emergency.

While we all want to get all the heat we can out of our energy dollars, we risk losing everything if we push saving over the line of safety. Here are some dos and don’ts from the Maine State Fire Marshal’s Office:

Fill gaps that may be letting heat escape. These are often most noticeable around windows and doors. A number of caulking materials are widely available; be careful of products designed to treat an entire window or door.

Plastic applied to a window with a hair dryer can seal several leaks at once. It can also make it more difficult to use as an escape route in an emergency. Richard Taylor, the fire marshal’s research and planning analyst, says if you must use plastic wrap, put it on the outside of a window.

Taylor says it’s never wise to use plastic or other materials to seal a door. Instead, use foam tape and similar products designed for use along the door-jamb. “All these devices can be used safely,” Taylor says.

Some products work better than others. You’d think duct tape would be ideal for sealing leaks in ductwork; research shows it can fall off because of poor surface preparation or drying out of the adhesive backing.

Heating equipment is the second leading cause of house fires; in fact, during the “energy crisis” of the 1970s, it surpassed cooking, which over the years has led all causes of household fires. The National Fire Protection Association says that in 2005, heating equipment was involved in 62,000 home fires.

Electric space heaters should carry the mark of an independent testing lab and should be approved for use in your community. Install heaters according to the manufacturer’s instructions and local codes or (better) have them installed by a professional. Make sure they are well clear of flammable materials. Plug them into an adequate outlet, never an extension cord.

Heating costs have prompted many Mainers to take a first — or second — look at wood. On that subject, the fire marshal’s office has received calls from some wood dealers. They’re concerned because of the high demand for firewood so early in the heating season.

The fear is that people may burn “green,” or unseasoned, wood when they cannot find seasoned wood in their community. This practice releases creosote that can build up and cause chimney fires. We’ll look at wood heating in more detail in next week’s column.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. Interested and motivated prospective volunteers are always needed and welcome to apply to help with our mission. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or e-mail

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