Cozy Up with Caution Saturday, Mar 1 2014 

One of the benefits of this long, cold winter is plenty of opportunities to enjoy evenings by the fireplace or wood-burning stove. Between the warmth, earthy smell of smoke, and hypnotic dance of the flames, controlled fires set a relaxing and romantic atmosphere.

But there are some very important precautions to remember when using home fireplaces and wood-burning stoves. First of all, we should never burn household garbage, cardboard, plastics, magazines, or wood that is painted, rotted, diseased, or moldy. Nor should we burn pressure-treated logs or ones made from wax and sawdust. These logs produce harmful chemicals when burned and may damage wood-burning appliances. It’s also extremely dangerous to start fires with gasoline, kerosene, or charcoal starter.

The type of wood we burn also is important to consider. Some of the hardest woods, which include ironwood, rock elm, hickory, oak, and sugar maple, are longer burning. Firewood should be split into pieces no larger than six inches in diameter and safely stacked and covered. It also needs to be stored at least six months to dry for efficient burning. Properly seasoned wood is darker, has cracks in the end grain, and sounds hollow when smacked against another piece of wood.

Keep the doors of your wood-burning appliance closed unless loading or stoking the fire. Harmful chemicals, like carbon monoxide, can be released. Every home—especially those with wood burning stoves and fireplaces—need fire extinguishers, working smoke alarms, and carbon monoxide detectors. Ashes from your wood-burning appliance must be removed regularly.

If smoke is coming out of your chimney either the wood is too wet or there is a problem with the furnace that needs to be checked immediately. Smoke consists of a mixture of gases, harmful particles, and toxic pollutants that can get into your eyes and respiratory system causing burning eyes, runny nose, illnesses such as bronchitis, and even early death. Expectant mothers, children, the elderly, and people with lung and heart disease are especially susceptible.

Although stoves and fireplaces manufactured after 1990 are 50% more efficient and result in less creosote build-up in chimneys than previous ones, new or old, wood-burning or gas, fireplaces generally are an inefficient way of heating the home, according to the EPA. The draft from the fireplace draws the warm air right up the chimney. They also cause the heater in homes with central air to work harder to maintain the temperature throughout the rest of the house.

Efficiency and dangers aside, these warnings are not to deter anyone from enjoying their fire. A healthy respect for the element and a few common sense precautions can keep everyone safe and cozy.

(Information gathered from the EPA – United States Environmental Protection Agency – Website)

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

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Candle Safety Thursday, Nov 29 2012 

When I was a child, my family lived across the street from Our Lady of Angels Church in Chicago. The Our Lady of Angels School stood on the opposite side of the church. On December 1, 1958 a small fire quickly accelerated into a massive torch consuming the old building and claiming 92 children and 3 nuns.

I was only four years old but the memories are vividly etched in my brain – the thick black smoke, fire engines and flashing lights through the late afternoon and evening, and most of all, the street filled with body bags.

Two years later I attended first grade in the new Our Lady of the Angels school along with upper classmates physically and emotionally scarred from the fire. Their hand-me-down coats and books reeked with smoke. Those students and a neighborhood of tearful parents were a constant reminder of what the fire stole and what it left behind.

Massive changes were made in fire safety as a result of the loss of so many young lives. Sprinkler systems, fire doors, and regular fire drills became mandatory in public buildings.

Fire safety laws also were mandated for new home construction. But once homeowners settle into their living quarters, these precautions are often forgotten. More than 40 home fires are reported every day due to candles alone, and many of these fires result in death. Most of them are caused by candles placed too close to other objects or left unattended.

Candles add an atmosphere of festivity around the holidays. This also is a time our homes are more crowded with people and decorations. We are busy and easily can forget our lit candles. Here are a few safety tips from the U.S. Fire Administration to keep in mind:

  • Avoid using lighted candles all together. Instead, consider battery operated flameless candles.
  • Use sturdy metal, glass or ceramic holders.
  • Keep candles at least 12 inches from anything that can burn.
  • Keep out of reach of children.
  • Never use near medical oxygen.
  • Use a flashlight, never a candle, for emergency lighting. Have flashlights and batteries on hand at all times.
  • Never put candles on a Christmas tree.
  • Extinguish candles before going to bed.

Also, be sure to have a sufficient number of working smoke alarms.

Should a fire occur, escape first, and then call for help. Have a fire escape plan and practice frequently with your family. Designate a meeting place. Make sure everyone knows two ways to escape from every room. Crawl low under smoke, keep your mouth covered, and never return to a burning building for any reason.

The Our Lady of the Angels fire instilled a tremendous level of respect for fire in me. I realize that I forget my lit candles so, most often, I use large candles in jars and place them on my flat, electric stove top or in the unlit fireplace.

Please weigh the ambiance created by candles against the dangers. The season cannot be festive if it isn’t safe.

©2012, Mary K. Doyle

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