The Biggest Risk to Your House This Winter

By | January 19, 2016

With temperatures (finally!) dropping, many of us crank up the heat at home—but a higher electrical bill isn’t the only danger we face.

Wintertime is the prime season for house fires: Half of all conflagrations occur in the months of December, January, and February, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Theaverage household can expect five fires in its lifetime. This is a lot of fires. And while most are small, they collectively cost us $7.3 billion a year in property damage—plus there’s one chance in 10 that fire will injure someone in your home.

The good news? Most house fires are easily preventable—all it takes is knowing how they start. So in addition to equipping your home with smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, watch out for these potential dangers:

Space heaters

Many houses, especially old ones, have cold spots that central heating simply won’t reach—which makes plug-in space heaters a godsend. Right? Well, these toasty devices are the leading cause of house fires in the winter, so just be sure to respect these rules of thumb: Make sure your heater is at least 3 feet away from anything flammable; plug your heater directly into the outlet rather than extension cords; and although it may be tempting, do not go to bed with the space heater still on.

“Most space heater accidents happen while everyone is sleeping,” says Peter Duncanson, director of disaster restoration training for ServiceMaster. You’re much safer bundled up in warm pajamas and blankets.


Odds are you’ll be cooking some of your favorite comfort foods this season, and we all know how easy it is to step away from the stove for just one minute. Stovetop cooking is the leading cause of house fires year-round, and most occur within the first 15 minutes of cooking.

Ever heard the song “Stand By Your Man?” Well, safety experts have adapted it to their own pithy recommendation: Stand by Your Pan. If you must leave, establish a rule where you turn off the stove. Or, if you’ve embarked on a big baking project that takes hours, you can leave the room, but check back at least once every half-hour, and do not leave the house without turning off the oven. Also, make sure that oven mitts, dish towels, and other flammable items remain 3 feet away from the stovetop at all times—you’d be amazed how heat can travel.

Electrical cords

We’ve all done it: We want the teapot, laptop, iPhone charger, and toaster to run from the same power outlet—so we add an extension cord or adapter to accommodate all our appliances that need juice. Yet every year, overloaded or damaged circuits cause 3,300 fires.

To avoid this, for starters give your cords a feel: If they’re warm, they’re overloaded and you should rethink how many gadgets are plugged in. Never run extension cords under rugs or in walls, or string together several in a row.

Fireplaces and wood stoves

Who doesn’t love warming their feet in front of a fire? But whether you have a gas or wood-burning fireplace or stove, it’s important to stay vigilant.

First, keep any flammable objects at least at a 5-foot distance. And even once your fire is out, it can still cause trouble: Those embers can smolder for up to two weeks and ignite other trash you throw out with them. The best policy is to empty ashes into a metal container and store them away from anything flammable for at least two weeks. Last but not least, be sure to “clean your fireplace and flues at least annually,” says Sabine Schoenberg, home improvement expert and host of ThisNewHouse. She suggests hiring a professional or doing it yourself with a solution of 4 parts water to 1 part bleach.


Candles add instant Zen to any room; it’s no wonder they’ve become so popular. But that also explains how, in the past 10 years, there’s been so many candle fires. The main problem is not candles per se, but how we use them: We light them on top of tablecloths or near curtains, which can easily catch fire.

“Candles should be burned within sight on a stable surface, away from anything that can catch fire and out of reach of children and pets,” explains Carol Freysinger, executive director of the National Candle Association. As you know, wax can also get soft as it melts, and a hot candle can tip out of its holder; igniting wood surfaces and shelves. The best way to avoid these mistakes? Just never leave a candle burning unattended, or switch to battery-powered ones—these days they flicker just like the real thing.

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