As Christmas nears, deadly fires or those that displace entire families for the holidays are especially heartbreaking. And with rising winter heating costs, some consumers are looking elsewhere for a cheaper way to keep warm, unaware that the alternatives can come with increased risks.
Local fire departments are urging people to be more vigilant and properly inform themselves to prevent potentially damaging or deadly accidents.
"Generally speaking, most of the [alternative heating products] are safe," Altoona Deputy Chief Mike Tofano said.
Most fires result from user error with "people putting things on top of heaters, or near heaters, that shouldn't be there," he said.
A 2011 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report states that deaths from fires and burns is the third leading cause of fatal home injury, with most residential fires taking place during winter months, when heat use peaks.
The U.S. Fire Administration reported in 2010 that 30 percent of home heating fires that were not confined to the point of ignition occurred because the heat source was too close to combustibles.
Residents can minimize the risk of units like space heaters catching fire by keeping them at least 2 feet away from materials such as clothing or furniture, or anything else that can ignite, Tofano said.
Tofano also recommended buying space heaters marked with an Underwriters Laboratory, or UL, label to make sure the heater meets safety standards, and that the model comes with a sensor and automatic turn-off switch that will turn off if the device is knocked over.
But space heaters typically aren't capable of heating an entire home, and as the cost of home heating fuels and other utilities increases, many consumers look to stay warm by installing a fireplace or stove.
Wood-burning fireplaces are the least expensive heating option, but factors like cleaning costs and access to proper firewood can be a turnoff, Tom Glass, co-owner of Fireplace Creations in Duncansville, said.
Coal is the second cheapest, Glass said, but his customers tend to prefer the third-cheapest option: pellet-burning appliances.
Pellets are made of compressed sawdust and burn in a stove or fireplace. They are a cheaper alternative to propane, oil or electric heat, cost roughly the same as natural gas and burn cleaner than coal, he said.
Those who look toward aesthetics may desire the pretty, warm flickering flame of a wood-burning fireplace with the ease of using natural gas, but Glass said the trade-off for a pretty hearth is heat loss.
"Generally, the prettiest flame produces the least amount of heat, because the design of a vented gas log produces a lot of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide that gets released up the flue," he said.
Anyone looking into these alternatives needs to make sure their products are professionally installed. Sellers that offer cash-and-carry to save consumers money tend to skimp on safety clearances, cleaning products and safety, and those products can cause more fires, Glass said.
He also warned against burning wet, unseasoned wood.
"Wood pellet appliances are much safer than a wood stove," he said, but all stoves and fireplaces require routine maintenance.
Guaranteeing product safety is the No. 1 thing Fireplace Creations does to stay in business, he said.
When people decide to use wood-burning fireplaces to heat their homes, they need to make sure people clean the flues and chimneys, Pinecroft Assistant Fire Chief Cody McFarland said.
Both Glass and Tofano recommended installing carbon monoxide detectors in the home.
Tofano added that heating units are not the only winter fire hazards; Christmastime decorations are a major threat that comes with the holiday season. People who adorn their houses with decorations can create extra points of ignition, or, in some cases, extra fuel for potential fires.
Watering real Christmas trees is important, and that letting a tree dry out greatly increases the fire risk, Tofano said.
Additionally, Christmas light enthusiasts should check manufacturer's instructions and package directions to avoid plugging too many strands of lights into one outlet, and make sure proper extension cords are being used that won't overheat, he said.
Winter also places an extra burden on firefighters.
"Anything around, if it's wet, it will turn to ice," including fire hoses and streets, McFarland said.
Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.