Several factors increase risk of fire in winterby Steven John, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Winter is a particularly dangerous season for fires, and this year is no exception.
Four people died in three separate fires in the Twin Cities since Saturday, including an early morning fire Tuesday that killed an Edina woman.
Dozens of less serious building and car fires have left emergency crews scrambling in the snow and cold from the weekend blizzard. A major fire Tuesday destroyed a furniture store in the Midway area of St. Paul.
St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard spoke with MPR's Steven John on Tuesday about why winter fires are more common -- and more deadly -- and how people can take effective precautions.
Steven John: Give us an update on the fires in St. Paul today.
Steve Zaccard: At the three-alarm fire we had on North Prior this morning, we had a couple firefighters suffer minor frostbite. They were treated at the scene and went back to work, but fortunately no more injuries than that. And that's the way we like it.
John: It seems like the number of fires has gone up with the snow and cold weather. Are fires more common this time of year?
Zaccard: Fires are more common, particularly in the months of December, January, and February. They're the three busiest months for having fires. And the holiday season like this is the most deadliest time to have a fire. People go indoors. They have candles. They're cooking. Their heating plants are running, fireplaces, wood burning stoves ... space heaters. But winter time is the busiest time for having building fires, particularly in this climate.
John: And you mentioned there's more fatalities. Is that because there's simply more fires this time of the year?
Zaccard: Well, yes, more fires. And the leading cause of fatal fires is actually careless smoking, but there are more fires in the wintertime, so they're more likely to be fatal. As you pointed out, we've had three fatal fires in just the last couple days.
John: Does the cold and the snow affect the severity of fires? I know there were some difficulties over the weekend for fire crews to get through the snowy streets.
Zaccard: It can, particularly with this kind of snowfall. The travel can be delayed, although the streets are cleared now. But the temperatures take a toll on our equipment and our people. Our equipment can freeze. You know water freezes at 32 degrees, so we've got to keep it moving or it will freeze in the hoses. And our people have to be switched out so they don't suffer, frankly, from hypothermia and frostbite.
So it does take its toll on our equipment and our people. The walking is treacherous through the snow, and the fire ground is covered with ice because we have to run those hose lines to keep them from freezing. So it's very treacherous. Slips and falls are one of the leading causes of firefighter injuries. Fortunately, we didn't have any of that today.
John: Do equipment needs change in fighting fires in a northern climate such as ours?
Zaccard: The equipment's pretty much the same. It's just harder on our equipment because gauges can freeze. Pumps can freeze. Hose lines can freeze if the water isn't kept moving. Ladders get covered with a thin film of ice, so they're harder to retract.
Sometimes when we pick up a hose, we have to shut it down and drain it, and before we can drain it, it freezes. So you don't roll up the hose. You actually fold the hose because it's so full of ice. So it's really, really hard to fight a fire in the wintertime. It's hard on the equipment, and it's hard on the people.
John: What about the cost to fight fires in the winter?
Zaccard: The cost, again, the wear and tear on the equipment, and the fact that we may have to go to extra alarms to get more people to relieve, and rehab the ones that got to the fire originally will add a cost. We do have to do that sometimes in the heat, too, but most often in the wintertime.
Of course, then in the wintertime, too, we have trouble sometimes finding the hydrants in this kind of snow. So we're asking people to locate and shovel out their hydrants, both at home and at work. There's over 7,000 or 8,000 hydrants here in St. Paul, and the fire department does go out and shovel some of them, but we can only get to a small portion of them.
We really need the public's help to identify where, and locate, and shovel out hydrants for us so we can use it. It saves precious time during a fire while it's burning, and can save property and lives.
John: What about some other practical advice for homeowners this time of year to, first of all, avoid fires?
Zaccard: If you're using candles, be very careful with them. We also, with this kind of snowfall, want people to check their exits, so make sure they can get all the doors open, all the windows open to their house, in case they have to get out.
At work, make sure your exit doors don't have snow behind them, so you can get out in case of an emergency. That's an important thing because this snow really piles up behind the exit doors, and you simply can't open them. They might as well be locked.
We want folks to make sure their gas meters are shoveled because they can freeze up. If you do have ice on your gas meters, don't try to dislodge it yourself. Call your gas utility, otherwise you can do more harm than good.
And the newer furnaces need a lot of make-up air to run efficiently. So make sure that the air intake into your furnace room is not blocked or your furnace won't run properly, and it will produce a lot of carbon monoxide.
Make sure you have carbon monoxide detectors. They're required by law in any residential occupancy to be within 10 feet of a door to any room used for sleeping, bedrooms. So they need to be within 10 feet of bedrooms. And of course, smoke detectors outside -- and now inside of each bedroom -- is where we recommend you have them. Check them monthly and change the batteries every year.
John: Do you think that the public becomes more aware of the dangers of fires after a week like we've had, with so many blazes around the Twin Cities?
Zaccard: Absolutely. It raises awareness of having fires. It doesn't happen to just somebody else. It can happen to you or somebody you know. It can happen at home. It can happen at your workplace, but having these fires does raise awareness. And that's why we appreciate being able to talk with you about it, because fire is a real thing.
We've reduced fire deaths in our country a lot, but we have a long way to go. Almost 4,000 people a year die as a result of fires.
(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)
- All Things Considered, 12/14/2010, 5:20 p.m.