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Fire chiefs caution about space heaters

Fire chiefs in Schuylkill and Carbon counties caution people about auxiliary heat during this extreme weather.

Space heaters account for 81% of heating fire deaths between 2014 and 2018, according to the NFPA. The Pennsylvania Office of the State Fire Commissioner recommends keeping combustible items 3 feet from heating sources, turning off space heaters when leaving the room or going to bed and checking smoke alarms. Also, never use an oven for heat.

“People are looking to stay warm this time of year,” said John McArdle, Nesquehoning Hose Company fire chief and president of the Carbon County Fireman’s Association and chairman of the Carbon County Fire Chiefs Association.

Tamaqua Fire Chief Jim Connely said if using a space heater, plug it directly into a wall outlet and never plug it into an extension cord. Keep everything a minimum 3 feet distance away.

Pets and children should stay away.

“Never leave a child alone in a room with a space heater,” Connely said.

To help increase your survival time during a fire, sleeping with a door closed can help.

“Closing your door can save your life,” he said, adding it could give you an extra hour.

Smoke inhalation is usually the cause of death in fires, he said.

The most recent fatal fire in the borough was Dec. 4, 2020, when a woman in her 70s died in the Tamaqua high-rise fire.

The chiefs said they feel for the first responders in Philadelphia and New York.

A fatal fire Jan. 5 in Philadelphia where 12 people died was caused by a Christmas tree fire.

On Sunday a fire in the Bronx was caused by a malfunctioning space heater, officials said. Eight of the 17 killed were children.

“It’s a tragedy when you have a child die in a fire,” McArdle said, adding that all lives are valuable.

“The situation in Philadelphia kind of strikes close to home,” Connely said.

In Tamaqua, a mother and three children, ages 10, 2 and 3 months died Dec. 25, 1982, when a Christmas tree caught fire. The father was the only one to escape with injuries, Connely said.

McArdle said a New Year’s Day Christmas tree fire in Nesquehoning at least eight years ago left a woman in the hospital for months. She had bought a live tree and put lights on it. Shortly thereafter, she smelled smoke and took the tree outside. However, when she opened the door, the oxygen caused the fire to grow, McArdle said.

Philadelphia Fire Commissioner and Office of Emergency Management Director Adam K. Thiel held a press conference Tuesday where he spoke about the deaths.

He said investigators believe “with near certainty based on the evidence that the ignition source for that tree was a lighter.”

He said a 5-year-old child was the only one on the second floor where the tree and lighter were located. The child was one of two survivors. Nine children and three adults died of smoke inhalation, according to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Medical Examiner’s Office.

The residence had seven smoke alarms - however, six of them didn’t have batteries, he said. The other one was in the basement and sounded.

He urged people to have working smoke alarms.

“Fire is everyone’s fight. Have smoke alarms. Test your smoke alarms,” Thiel said.

Maintaining working smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors could save a life, Connely said. In 2021, half of the calls the fire department went to didn’t have working smoke alarms, he said.

McArdle recommended people have an escape plan for a fire. Having working smoke alarms is also crucial.

Data from the National Fire Protection Association indicate between 2015 and 2019, the most recent data available, Christmas trees started 160 home fires, causing an average of two deaths, 12 injuries and $10 million in property damage yearly. Twenty percent of tree fires were started by lights.