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Fire prevention begins at home
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Fire in the United States is a more serious problem than most people realize.

According to the 13th Edition of "Fire in the United States 1992-2001," published by U.S. Fire Administration, "the U.S. fire problem, on a per capita basis, is one of the worst in the industrial world. Thousands of Americans die each year, tens of thousands of people are injured, and property losses reach billions of dollars."

Add in the indirect costs of fire, which include temporary housing, medical expenses, psychological damage, and more, fire costs could reach a much as eight to 10 times higher, the publication said.

"To put this in context, the annual losses from floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters combined in the United States average just a fraction of those from fires," according to the USFA.

Holiday fires are much too common, as evidenced by the recent increase of residential fires around Pinellas. USFA statistics show that fire risk goes up between Dec. 1 and Jan. 7 each year, which is attributed to cultural and religious practices involving Christmas trees, candles and decorations that burn easily.

Cooking-related fires increase during the winter holidays, with most fire occurring on Christmas and New Year's Day, according to the USFA. Fires started by children also increase on Christmas and New Year's Day.

Residential fires occur every 79 seconds, according to information from the American Red Cross. Four out of seven home fires occur during December, January and February, according to the National Fire Protection Association. About 50 percent of the fires are caused by candles and overloading of electrical circuits.

"Ninety-three percent of Red Cross responses are for home fires, which are one of the few preventable emergencies," Kelly Donaghy, with the American Red Cross, said in a press release. "Just by taking simple preparedness steps, you can save your home, or even your family."

Most people don't understand fire, according to the USFA, which makes it harder to take prevention steps. The USFA believes that many of the more than 4,000 fire deaths in the United States each year could be prevented if people know the basic facts about fire, including:

- Fire is fast. In less than 30 seconds a small flame can get completely out of control and turn into a major fire. It only takes minutes for thick black smoke to fill a house. In minutes, a house can be engulfed in flames. Most fires occur in the home when people are asleep. If you wake up to a fire, you won't have time to grab valuables because fire spreads too quickly and the smoke is too thick. There is only time to escape.

- Fire is hot. Heat is more threatening than flames. A fire's heat alone can kill. Room temperatures in a fire can be 100 degrees at floor level and rise to 600 degrees at eye level. Inhaling this super hot air will scorch your lungs. This heat can melt clothes to your skin. In five minutes a room can get so hot that everything in it ignites at once: this is called flashover.

- Fire is dark. Fire isn't bright; it's pitch black. Fire starts bright, but quickly produces black smoke and complete darkness. If you wake up to a fire you may be blinded, disoriented and unable to find your way around the home you've lived in for years.

- Fire is deadly. Smoke and toxic gases kill more people than flames do. Fire uses up the oxygen you need and produces smoke and poisonous gases that kill. Breathing even small amounts of smoke and toxic gases can make you drowsy, disoriented and short of breath. The odorless, colorless fumes can lull you into a deep sleep before the flames reach your door. You may not wake up in time to escape.

For more information, visit www.usfa.fema.gov or www.redcross.org.
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