Experts warn of space heaters, cooking fires this winter

The Iowa City Fire Department and national experts are cautioning residents during the winter months, a time when fires increase, to prevent the occurrence and spread of fires from stoves, heaters, and fireplaces.

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Daniel McGregor-Huyer

Iowa City Fire Marshall Brian Greer poses in front of a fire truck at the Iowa City Fire Station 1 Headquarters on Jan. 18 2022.

Sam Knupp, News Reporter


With the cold months upon Iowa, warmth may come at a cost.

Half of all home heating fires occur in December, January, and February, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

In 2021, Iowa City suffered 183 fires overall, 44 of which were cooking fires that didn’t do any damage to the infrastructure of a building, Iowa City Fire Marshal Brian Greer said. Another 44 were building fires, some of which were the result of cooking.

Thomas Olshanski, director of external affairs for the United States Fire Administration, said the leading cause of fires year-round is cooking.

“The biggest thing is walking away when you have stuff on the stove, leaving it unattended,” Olshanski said. “The other one is children. They shouldn’t be playing around the stoves when you’re cooking, obviously.”

Olshanski said another major cause of fires, especially in the winter months of the year, is heating. He said space heaters and fireplaces can both be hazardous if used improperly.

“The biggest problem that we run into with space heaters is they can get older. With age, cords get worn,” Olshanski said.

A space heater ignited an apartment building in the Bronx, New York, on Jan. 9, killing 17 people and injuring 44 more. The fire occurred four days after a Philadelphia apartment fire that resulted in the death of 12, while injuring two more.

Space heaters also tend to “creep” or slowly get closer to hazardous areas, because of people moving them to different parts of a living space, Olshanski said.

“If you do get a space heater, make sure it’s one that has been approved by Underwriters Laboratories or other organizations that test these things,” he said.

The U.S. Fire Administration recommends keeping space heaters at least three feet away from any flammable materials and shutting them off both when going to bed and leaving the house.

Olshanski also said to take care when using fireplaces. He said there is no need for lighter fluids, including gasoline, in fireplaces.

“Once a fire is out, coals should be left to stay in the fireplace for 24 hours. If you’re going to pull them out sooner, [use] a metal container and [place it] away from the house,” he said. “We’ve had a number of very tragic events where people have put them in plastic buckets just outside their house alongside the garage or placed them in the garage. And then next thing, you have a garage fire, tons of houses burning.”

Olshanski said unconventional heating methods, like using ovens to heat houses, are fire hazards.

“What people don’t realize is that the buildup in an oven that hasn’t been cleaned, all of that black stuff … can reburn,” Olshanski said. “It’s grease, it’s all kinds of different products that are flammable. Ovens are for cooking.”

RELATED: Iowa City Fire Department extinguishes elevator fire at UIHC

Greer said one of the best steps to protect against fires is simply shutting the bedroom door before going to sleep.

“Most doors probably give you about a 15 to 30 minute rating and that fire wouldn’t be able to get through there until it gets [the wood] burned,” he said. “… Sometimes the fire runs out of oxygen before that. So it still might have heat in the room, but it has no more oxygen so it doesn’t burn at that point.”

A video on closeyourdoor.org, by Underwriters Laboratories features an experiment where the bedroom door was left open and the fire consumed the room, reaching temperatures of nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. In the test where the door was closed, the room stayed under 100 degrees and was left relatively unharmed.

The issue of doors being left open relates directly to the recent fatal fire in the Bronx. The apartment’s automatic closing doors malfunctioned, allowing the fire to spread more rapidly, Greer said.

“Nobody died from the fire [in the Bronx],” Greer said. “… There was a lot of thick black smoke that moved throughout that apartment building, and it was smoke inhalation that killed people.”

Greer also wrote several fire prevention and safety tips in a recent press release from the Iowa City Fire Department. Some of the instructions include hiring a professional to check the chimney and vents, plugging in only one heat producing source (such as a space heater) at a time, and installing and testing carbon monoxide detectors every three months.

Greer said there is a lack of knowledge at times surrounding carbon monoxide, as some people don’t realize it is odorless, colorless, and easily undetectable.

Fire prevention steps are also taken in the University of Iowa residence halls.

Gregory Thompson, UI director of residence education, said fire evacuation procedures are discussed in the first four residents’ meetings of every semester of residence halls. In the meetings, residents discuss general fire safety procedures, along with buildings where kitchens are primarily located.

“We do a little extra training around how the gas stoves work, how to shut off the gas, how to make sure that you’re utilizing the oven, because a lot of students may not be familiar with gas ovens,” Thompson said.

Thompson said students are encouraged to make sure appliances they buy for their dorm rooms have a good safety rating and if they were bought used, to make sure the cords are intact.

“The other piece we tell students a lot is to make sure that they’re monitoring the devices that they use,” Thompson said. “Whether that’s food in a microwave or if they are cooking on a stove and one of our halls to make sure that they monitor it.  The vast majority of situations where we have any sort of cooking related fires or potential issues is by items that are left unattended.”

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