As fires caused by space heaters claim lives, smoke detectors are touted

In the first week of February, the Missouri Department of Public Safety attributed at least seven deaths to fires apparently caused by space heater misuse.
In the first week of February, the Missouri Department of Public Safety attributed at least seven deaths to fires apparently caused by space heater misuse.

Days after a Kansas City man died in a house fire ignited by a space heater, about 350 of his neighbors found fliers attached to their front doors.

The fliers offered free smoke detector installation.

As of Friday, 13 homes had signed up.

The fliers came from the American Red Cross of Greater Kansas City, which has teamed with the Kansas City Fire Department on smoke detector campaigns in areas near fire tragedies for years, said JoAnn Woody, disaster program specialist.

“That is where awareness is going to be highest,” Woody said.

But now, the push has an added urgency. That’s because the Red Cross launched an initiative in October to reduce deaths and injuries from home fires by as much as 25 percent over the next five years.

Organizers consider equipping more homes with working smoke detectors to be a priority, especially during winter when many people plug in space heaters.

Space heaters are the nation’s leading cause of home fires each December, January and February, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

In Kansas, officials have attributed 133 fires between 2004 and 2014 to space heaters. One blaze was fatal.

In the first week of February alone, the Missouri Department of Public Safety attributed at least seven deaths, including children, to fires apparently caused by space heater misuse.

The spike prompted prevention officials to issue reminders on safe use of the devices.

“We get so used to having these in our homes,” said Greg Carrell, acting Missouri state fire marshal.

“But don’t be complacent. These heaters are meant to be supplemental.”

The latest victim was a 62-year-old southeast Missouri man who used a wheelchair. He died last Sunday. Two days before that, a 7-year-old St. Louis girl died in a blaze blamed on two space heaters plugged into the same outlet.

On Feb. 4, a space heater fire killed a 78-year-old woman and her two great-grandchildren, 6 and 4, in University City, a St. Louis suburb.

On Feb. 1, two children, 8 and 10, and a 47-year-old woman died in a Poplar Bluff house fire. Investigators determined the fire originated in a room heated by electric and propane space heaters.

Also this month, Kansas City fire investigators identified a space heater as the cause of the fire in the 7000 block of South Benton Avenue that killed Gerald Futrell, 55.

The home had no working smoke detectors.

Kansas City fire investigators have counted more than 20 space-heater-related fires since cold weather arrived, said Floyd Peoples, Kansas City Fire Department chief fire marshal.

The problem is not the space heater equipment but its improper use, he said.

Space heaters should never be left unattended, he said. They also should not be placed closer than 3 feet from drapes, clothes, furniture or other combustible materials.

That’s when trouble can begin. And that’s where smoke alarms come in.

“Space heaters and smoke alarms go together,” Peoples said.

The Kansas City Fire Department provides almost 500 free smoke alarms every year, he said.

Almost $150,000 worth of smoke alarms recently arrived, courtesy of a federal grant the Kansas City Fire Department won in conjunction with the Heart of America Metro Fire Chiefs Council. These will be distributed for free by participating fire departments across a nine-county region.

Kansas City area firefighters routinely witness the crucial difference smoke alarms make.

On Feb. 13, the same day volunteers walked up and down South Benton Avenue in Kansas City, Overland Park firefighters responded to a garage fire near 139th and Goodman streets.

“As fire losses go, it was a minor fire,” said Jason Rhodes, Overland Park Fire Department spokesman. “It burned the interior and exterior of a garage wall. But the homeowner indicated to us that his smoke alarms woke him up in the middle of the night.

“That early warning was probably why it turned out to be a minor fire.”

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

Safer use of space heaters

Fire prevention officials on both sides of the state line recommend these space heater safety guidelines:

▪ Keep anything that can burn at least 3 feet away from heating equipment. That 3-foot safety zone includes furniture, drapes and electronics.

▪ Maintain a 3-foot “kid-free zone” around space heaters.

▪ Turn space heaters off when leaving a room or going to bed.

▪ Don’t overload extension cords while using space heaters. Some cords or power strips are not designed to handle the load used by an electric heater.

▪ Never place an electric space heater cord under a rug.

▪ Always use the correct kind of fuel specified by the manufacturer for fuel-burning space heaters.

▪ Look for labels from a testing laboratory to check that the heater’s construction and performance meets safety standards.

▪ Don’t use cooking appliances to heat a home.

For information on free smoke detectors from the American Red Cross of the Greater Kansas City, call 816-841-5242.

The Kansas City Fire Department also will provide free smoke detectors and will install them for those needing assistance. For information, call 816 784-9100.