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Winter brings more fires and dangers for firefighters

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With residents turning to alternative heating sources like space heaters to stay warm in subzero temperatures, fire chiefs say winter is the busiest and most dangerous time of year for firefighters in St. Lawrence County.

The increased number of fires during the winter months is due to use of wood stoves, pellet stoves, furnaces and alternative heating devices such as kerosene and 1,300- and 1,500-watt electric heaters, according to St. Lawrence County Emergency Services Coordinator Joseph M. Gilbert.

“Fireplaces, woodstoves and other outside stoves that emit smoke and fumes always pose significant dangers and risk of fires,” Mr. Gilbert said. “If you don’t keep furnace filters cleaned out, they get dirty, leading to over-heating.”

Dangers with using electric heaters can be compounded when residents use improper extension cords, Ogdensburg Fire Department Assistant Chief Ray J. Larock said.

“The average lightweight extension cords are meant for low-wattage electrical units,” he said. “When you plug in an extension cord to a 1500-watt heater, that heat builds up in the cords and can cause a fire. It’s important to use the appropriate extension cord or no extension cord. Also, use a circuit breaker-type receptacle surge protector.”

Using the manufacturing specifications and consumer awareness operating are the two biggest factors to consider when using home heating alternatives, Mr. Larock said.

“Extended cold periods prompt people to install certain devices such as pellet stoves and wood stoves,” he said. “But a building permit is first required to install those items and an inspection is required after installation. There are a lot of people that go to the big box store and purchase these items and they don’t do (install) it appropriately. Sometimes homes do not have enough clearance, and that is why permits are required in order to insure these products can be safely utilized.”

In addition to fire hazards inside homes, weather conditions can create dangerous conditions for firefighters.

“Knock on wood we haven’t had to pull anybody out of a building so far this year, and we hope not to,” Morristown Fire Department Chief Kevin J. Crosby said Thursday.

Slippery conditions make traveling dangerous for victims and firefighters, Lisbon Fire Chief John A. McLear said.

“We’re not always sitting in the fire department all the time,” Mr. McLear said. “We’ve got to get to the department, load the trucks and get to the scene. If the weather is bad or if there is ice, that slows response time way down.”

The slower the response time, the greater the destruction, Mr. McLear said.

Pumping water for fires in areas without a municipal water source is another major challenge in cold snaps, Mr. McLear said.

“When that happens, you make sure you have another pumper (truck) ready to pull up beside it, whether it is your own or another department’s,” he said.

Mr. McLear said the departments drain water from the pumper trucks after each call, but that doesn’t always prevent freezing.

“We’ve had water freeze by the time we’ve pulled up to a scene,” he said. “I’ve seen two-and-half-inch hoses freeze right solid.”

At $250,000 each, the department can’t afford to purchase newer pumper trucks with heaters, Mr. McLear said.

“Our newest truck is eight years old,” he said. “The other is 15 years old and one is from 1974.”

The Morristown Fire Department fills its 6,500-gallon tractor tanker and its 2,000-gallon tanker at creeks, ditches, rivers and any other water source close enough to the station, Mr. Crosby said.

“That can put a lot of stress on the trucks, trying to fill them up and keep the water from freezing,” he said. “We have to keep the hoses at a constant flow. Basically if the water flow stops in the hose it will freeze, causing it to fly up and cause danger to anyone standing around.”

While Mr. McLear said Lisbon hasn’t received any calls so far this year, last year they received at least six heating-related fires, most of which could have been prevented.

“That’s why we always stress making sure smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are working and updated,” Mr. McLear said. “We try to reach the parents through fire prevention week in schools. We have parents calling up to complain because our kids won’t leave them alone until they clean their furnace. That’s when you know you’re doing the right thing.”

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