For the week of December 23 thru December 29, 1998  

Fire safety keeps your holidays merry

Watch those ashes

Express Staff Writer

Christmas in the Wood River Valley is frenzied. Activity is taken to its extreme as we drive pedestrian-cluttered streets, do last-minute shopping, overeat, drink eggnog, work overtime and ski countless runs down Baldy.

How easy it is, amid the rush, to lose sight of a basic hazard of the holiday season: fires.

We all know the fire-safety basics, pounded home by our elementary school teachers and Smoky the Bear. Smoke kills so get down and crawl low. Stop, drop, and roll if clothing ignites. Install fire extinguishers in easy access areas and put smoke detectors in all rooms. develop a plan of escape.

But glowing in the Wood River Valley's winter wonderland are some new and, especially to visitors from southern climates, less familiar hazards. Fireplaces, wood-burning stoves and even Christmas tree lights, if handled improperly, can stamp out holiday cheer.

Home fires, alas, are a real threat. According to the American Red Cross, American homes suffer an unwanted fire every 10 seconds, and every two and a half hours someone is killed in a home fire.

Here are a few tips for fireplace and wood-stove users to help protect against unwanted fires and help keep the holiday cheer:

Before Lighting Up

Clear the combustibles. Fireside reading material, wood and anything flammable should not be stored within 18 inches of the fireplace area.

Delight in your damper. Check the damper--the adjustable plate that regulates the draft--and become familiar with its open and closed positions. If it's closed during the fire, the house can fill with smoke and ruin your party.

View the flue. Using a mirror, look up the chimney flue, check for build-up. "If there's more than a quarter-inch of the fuzzy stuff," Ketchum Fire Chief Tom Johnson says, "it ought to be cleaned." The 'fuzzies' are bits of tar buildup called creosote, which can become a highly flammable, refined fuel in your chimney. Johnson, who uses his fireplace a few times a week, has his flue cleaned once a year.

Arrest your sparks. Be sure that the chimney or stovepipe is capped with a spark arrester, the non-corrosive wire mesh that keeps hot embers from drifting onto the roof or into the woods.

Stick to dry wood. It might be tempting to dispose of pesky gift wrap and other household debris by tossing it in an open fire, but none of it burns safely. Only burn dry wood. Green wood burns less completely and builds up the dreaded creosote in the flue.

After Lighting Up

Crack open an ash can. When ashes build up and need to be disposed, they should be placed in a metal can with a raised bottom and a tight-fitting lid. It is a common and dangerous mistake to place ashes, which seem extinguished, in a paper or plastic bag. Ashes can stay hot for days. The ash can, available at most hardware stores, is the safest method of disposal. Once the ashes are in the can, seal it and place it in an area far away from any combustibles.

Dumper beware. After two weeks in the can, it is safe to dispose of the ashes, but not in a Dumpster. Ketchum Fire Department has responded to two Dumpster fires within the past week caused by ashed. It's too risky to put even the canned ashes in a vessel full of combustibles. Chief Johnson, for example, says he disposes of his ashes safely by dispersing them in his garden.

Easy on the ash can. While an ash can is an indispensable tool, ash removal shouldn't bog you down. "The ashes don't need to be taken out right way." Chief Johnson explains. "You want a small bed of ashes in the fireplace, because it insulates."

Before you kick back and enjoy your safe fire, it's also a good idea to inspect your Christmas tree, another potential fire hazard. The tree should stand far away from the fire source. It should be fresh and bathed in water at its base. Candles on the tree are verboten, even if it is a cherished tradition. Tree lights should be "U.L. Listed," which means they have been tested and standardized.


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