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Firefighter advice on avoiding tragedy

It may be a warm, festive time of year, but few things send that holiday cheer up in smoke faster than a house fire.

And yet, ‘tis the season for exactly that.

Detroit Lakes Fire Chief Dave Baer says there are a few common mistakes that people make which leads to the most fiery mishaps.


If homeowners with fireplaces don’t sweep the chimney for Santa, they should at least get them cleaned to prevent fires.

“What happens is, there gets to be a build-up of creosol, a black, sooty substance that plugs up in the chimney,” said Baer. “It gets really heated up and can actually start on fire.”

Baer says that problem is made much worse when people burn things in their fireplace other than the proper wood.

“I know sometimes people will burn garbage or other debris, but that really plugs up the chimney,” said Baer, who says chimneys should be swept annually.

Christmas trees can be mere kindling when the situation is right.

Trees that aren’t kept properly watered will dry out, while some holiday decorations and lights can get hot enough to become a match to that kindling.

“Just make sure the bottoms are cut off the tree trunk so that it can absorb the water,” said Baer, who says the LED lights that are most common now aren’t very hot, but some of the older-style bulbs are known to start trees on fire.

“And keep the trees away from heaters because those can really dry the trees out, too,” said Baer.

Holiday lights should be turned off when nobody is home, as should any space heaters.

And keep things three to four feet away from those heaters — no blankets or debris around them to catch fire,” said Baer

Holiday cooking may be a big favorite for many this time of year, but it’s also a big culprit of house fires.

Turkey fryers that some people have in their garages or porches are towards the top of that naughty list.

“People will walk away from them, leave them unattended, and then what can happen is, if there’s too much oil in them, they’ll spill over and start a fire,” said Baer, who says if there is a fire like that, water is never the way to go.  Water only makes it worse.

“You’ll need the right kind of extinguisher that will starve it of oxygen,” said Baer, adding that kitchen fires are similar in that a cover should be placed on a stove fire to smother it.

People should also take care to blow out candles before going to bed or leaving the house, as Baer says those end up being big fire starters this time of year.

“We all like their smell…they’re homey, but when left to burn, the wax can spill over the edge and start a fire,” said Baer, “so just remember to extinguish them.”

It may be much less dramatic, but it can be just as deadly.

Carbon monoxide poisoning can sneak right into a person’s lungs with very little warning and very little effort.

In the first six days of December, the Detroit Lakes Fire Department has gotten six calls on this issue so far.

Baer says keeping that chimney clean is important here as well, because as fire produces carbon monoxide, it needs to be able to properly vent out. Clogged chimneys can force that carbon monoxide right back down into the house.

“And then we’ll also find faulty furnaces not being maintained, gas stoves not burning correctly and vents plugged,” said Baer, “whether it be snow around it or a bird had died in a vent and plugged it…it ends up filling the house (with carbon monoxide).”

And because everybody is warming up their vehicles these days, it’s important to not just open the garage door, but to actually pull out of the garage.

“That’s because the gas is slightly lighter than air, so it’ll hole up in the rafters of the garage,” said Baer, “and it’ll stay there for several hours so as soon as somebody opens up the door to their house, it goes right in.”

Baer says split level houses with bedrooms directly above a garage are particularly in danger of carbon monoxide, and recommends getting detectors both on the bottom level of a house and the top level, as the gas slowly rises.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, trouble breathing, dizziness, fatigue and confusion.

The dangerous part of that is, those common symptoms are often mistaken for illnesses, and people may just go to bed without giving carbon monoxide a thought.

“That’s why it’s important to get those detectors in the house,” said Baer.