PINELLAS COUNTY - From Dec. 1 to Dec. 20, the Tampa Bay Chapter of the American Red Cross assisted 18 county residents - victims of 13 separate house fires.
According to Tim Teahan with the Tampa Bay Chapter of the American Red Cross, the number of residential fires that Red Cross volunteers have responded to in this county is double that of the same time period in 2003, and the number of victims assisted has tripled.
"Fires are tragic at anytime of the year," Teahan said. "But the tragedies are more poignant during the holiday season."
Among the victims the Red Cross assisted in December was the family of Terrell Gary. Teahan said the family was provided with lodging and financial assistance for food and clothes, which he said was typical of the kind of aid given to victims of tragedy.
Teahan told the story of a family in Ruskin who, on Dec. 11, was clearing brush left from the hurricane season. The fire from the brush burned out of control and engulfed their mobile home destroying everything. Teahan said this tragedy was compounded because both children - a boy, age 17 months, and a girl, age 8 - have special medical needs. Their medications went up in flames with the rest of the family's possessions.
"In instances like this, a Red Cross worker can assist in providing emergency medications," Teahan said. "Fires are tragic and often the totality of what's lost is not realized until you go to need something."
The American Red Cross is able to assist families because of the generosity of the community, Teahan said.
"We're very fortunate with the level of support from the Tampa Bay area," he said. "But we're always in need. The money raised locally stays local and funds our ability to respond to fires and other disasters, as well as our transportation and Armed Forces programs."
Teahan said the number of residential fires was up throughout Tampa Bay this season. During the first 13 days of December, the Red Cross responded to more than 35 fires, including 11 since December 10. He said many of these fires were the result of misuse of heating appliances, the use of inappropriate heat sources, such as ovens or clothes dryers, or to a heating system malfunction.
Teahan and the Red Cross urge homeowners and renters to use extreme caution when using heating systems or heating appliances, such as space heaters.
"One of the most important things to remember is that space heaters need space," Teahan said. "Don't leave them unattended and don't leave them on when you leave the house. Use space heaters sparingly."
Teahan said people should choose an electric space heater over one that burns fuel for safety reasons.
The Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Fire Protection Agency and the state fire marshal have prepared some tips to help residents protect their property and belongings during the winter season:
Home heating systems - Have the entire heating system, including chimneys and vents, inspected and serviced by a licensed professional. Chimneys and flues also should be checked for blockages, such as bird nests and for corrosion and loose connections. Replace the furnace filter if necessary and never use appliances such as ranges, ovens or clothes dryers for heating.
Space heaters - Position space heaters at least three feet away from any combustible material and turn the appliances off when not in the room or when going to bed. Don't leave children or pets unattended with space heaters. If using a fuel-burning space heater, make sure it is vented to the outside according to manufacturer instructions. Do not use un-vented fuel-burning space heaters in rooms with closed doors or windows or in rooms where people are sleeping.
Fireplaces - Have chimneys and flues inspected and serviced by a licensed professional. Creosote, a substance formed when wood burns, collects in chimneys and can cause a fire if not removed. Burn only wood, never paper or pine boughs, which can emit from chimneys and possibly ignite a neighboring home. Use a sturdy hearth screen when a fireplace is lit, never use flammable liquids and ensure that flues are open when fireplaces are in use.
Wood or coal burning stoves - Install only stoves approved by a recognized testing laboratory and that meet local building and fire codes. Follow instructions for proper installation, use and maintenance. Chimney connections and flues should be inspected before the first use of the season and cleaned if necessary. Burn only wood and place the appliance on an approved stove board to protect the floor from heat and hot coals.
Smoke alarms and fire extinguishers - Inspect and remove dust and cobwebs from smoke alarm covers monthly. Install alarms outside each sleeping area and on each level of a home. If family members sleep with bedroom doors closed, install alarms inside sleeping areas as well. Use the test button once a month on each alarm and replace batteries immediately. Replace batteries in all alarms at least once a year and consider replacement every 10 years. Select the proper type of fire extinguisher and place at least one on each level of a home. Have fire extinguishers tested and serviced annually.
Carbon monoxide - Carbon monoxide is a practically odorless and colorless gas produced by the incomplete burning of fuels. It is poisonous to people and animals because it displaces blood oxygen. Appliances using natural gas, liquefied petroleum, oil, kerosene, coal, or wood can produce carbon monoxide. Burning charcoal produces carbon monoxide.
Statistics indicate that every year in the U.S., over 200 people die from carbon monoxide produced by fuel-burning appliances such as furnaces, ranges and space heaters. Several thousand people are hospitalized each year for carbon monoxide poisoning.
Carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms - Carbon monoxide is difficult to detect and affects people in different ways, based on its concentration in the air, length of exposure and individual health conditions. Initial symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are similar to the flu, but without the fever and include: headache, fatigue, and shortness of breath, nausea and dizziness. Carbon monoxide can make victims feel sleepy, or if asleep, can prevent them from waking up. At higher concentrations, impaired vision and coordination, headaches, dizziness, confusion and nausea are possible. In very high concentrations, carbon monoxide poisoning can cause death.
Carbon monoxide detectors and alarms - Install a CO detector and alarm in hallways near every separate sleeping area and make sure that furniture or draperies cannot cover the detector and alarm. Follow instructions on where to install the alarm and avoid installation near corners, where air circulation is poor.
According to statistics provided by the Red Cross, the number of residential fires increase dramatically during December, January and February. About 50 percent of the fires are caused by using candles and overloaded electrical circuits. Fires kill more people than all natural disaters combined each year.
For more information on heater safety or ways to donate to the Red Cross, visit www.redcrosstbc.org.