Fire officials stress caution during cold months

More than a dozen residential fires plagued south Louisiana residents last week, punctuated by two fatal fires, including an early morning Christmas blaze in Houma that killed three children.

In the wake of the relatively fiery, chilly week, officials urged residents to safeguard their homes before it’s too late.

“If you do nothing else, go out and buy a smoke alarm,” said Nancy Malone, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross. “If you have them, go out and check that they’re working.”

Fire officials tout smoke alarms as the most important fire safety investment that often provides precious minutes or seconds to people in danger.

About 90 percent of Louisiana’s fatal fires — including the Christmas Day Houma fire — occur in homes without a working smoke alarm, said State Fire Marshal Butch Browning Jr.

“If you have a properly working smoke alarm, typically, you get out,” Browning said.

The deadly blaze in Houma was possibly sparked by space heaters and candles, common cold-weather household items that must always be handled with caution, fire officials said.

“Without a doubt, space heaters,” Capt. Edwin Holmes said when asked what represents the most pressing cold-weather fire hazard.

Officials, including Holmes, said space heater users must keep them at least 3 feet from any combustible materials and always remember to turn them off when sleeping.

“Another problem is using the stove as a heat source,” which can create both a fire and a carbon monoxide hazard, Holmes said.

In general, officials recommend shying away from leaving an open flame unattended, especially while cooking, and crowding too many people into restricted spaces.

“We remind people to be cautious once the temperatures start to dip,” said Kay Wilkins, CEO of the American Red Cross Southeast Louisiana Chapter, in a news release. “Heating sources are the leading cause of cold-weather fires, but there are steps everyone can take to reduce the risk.”

Additional holiday precautions include being wary of electrical cord limitations, especially with Christmas lights, and knowing when to recycle a dried out Christmas tree.

Since last Friday, south Louisiana has seen at least 15 residential fires displace about 70 people, including at least eight fires in the greater New Orleans area, said Malone, the Red Cross spokeswoman.

In addition to the Houma fatalities, a 70-year-old man died on Dec. 21 in Slidell when a fire was sparked by a cigarette he was smoking in bed, said Chad Duffaut, Chief of Fire Prevention for St. Tammany Fire Protection District No. 1.

Duffaut said mobile homes do not necessarily represent substantial fire hazards, but smaller, confined spaces only heighten the need for working smoke alarms.

“If you install smoke detectors like you’re supposed to, you’re going to know there’s a fire in your home, and it’ll give you time to get out safely,” Duffaut said.

Anyone in need of a working smoke alarm can visit the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal’s website to make an electronic request for a free one, Browning said.

In addition, many local fire departments offer to install free smoke alarms, often acquired via the State Fire Marshal’s “Operation Save a Life,” for qualifying residents. The office budgets $100,000 annually to provide smoke detectors to fire departments, which can request them at any time, said Bob Wolfe, assistant chief of emergency services with the State Fire Marshal’s office.

So far, in 2013, the office distributed about 13,100 smoke detectors across the state, Wolfe said.

In one instance about two weeks ago, two elderly women contacted their local fire department in St. Mary Parish to take advantage of the program, Browning said, and hardly a week passed before the investment paid off.

“There’s a good possibility,” Browning said, “they could have been injured or killed” without the alarms, which allowed them to exit their residence safely.