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Oxford Fire Department Discusses Fire Safety Following Stamford Tragedy

Fire chief and training officer want Oxford residents to be safe.

A tragic that claimed the lives of five people, including two senior citizens from Southbury and three children, indicate that the incident could have been prevented, according to initial reports.

The report states that the smoldering remains, or embers, of a Christmas night Yule log were put in a bucket and left in a foyer; the flames later reignited and caused the massive house fire. (See a video attached about how to properly maintain and put out a fire.)

The it is no stranger to “fireplace carelessness, be it in chimneys that are either defective or not maintained, or careless placement of fireplace ash,” said Keith Nelsen, safety and training officer for the department.

“Putting them on the outside porch is always common,” he said, adding the OFD responded to neighboring Seymour on Christmas Eve night for a chimney fire. Nelsen described it as a good stop by firefighters but said there was definite damage to the interior of the home. And it was “all preventable,” he said.

He asked that Oxford residents be reminded of some basic fire safety measures:

  • First and foremost, smoke detectors save lives, he said. Fire Chief Scott Pelletier, who is also Oxford’s fire marshal, said the detectors should be checked to see if the batteries are working (press the button) at least once a month and those batteries should be replaced at least once a year (it appears from initial reports that the Stamford home did not have working fire alarms). Nelsen says “the more time you have to escape, the better your chances.”
  • Treat all fireplace embers with caution. “Even if they look like they are out, if a breeze fans the ash, it could rejuvenate the embers," Nelsen said.
  • Pelletier said to put embers in a metal bucket and wash them down. “Even if it’s been out for a week or two, you should follow the same procedure,” he said. “There could be hot embers inside the ash.”

Oxford has not had the kind of tragedy that Stamford had, at least not in anyone’s memory. However, there have been some close calls recently.

Two weeks ago, someone dumped ash outside and started a small brush fire, Pelletier said.

“The homeowners said they had not lit the fireplace in a couple of weeks, but they didn’t realize there were hot embers still in ash,” Pelletier explains.

More safety measures

Heating fires account for 36 percent of residential home fires in rural areas every year, according to the United States Fire Administration, a division of the Federal Emergency Management Association, which offers the following advice on its website:

Keep Fireplaces and Wood Stoves Clean

  • Have your chimney or wood stove inspected and cleaned annually by a certified chimney specialist.
  • Clear the area around the hearth of debris, decorations and flammable materials.
  • Leave glass doors open while burning a fire. Leaving the doors open ensures that the fire receives enough air to ensure complete combustion and keeps creosote from building up in the chimney.
  • Close glass doors when the fire is out to keep air from the chimney opening from getting into the room. Most glass fireplace doors have a metal mesh screen which should be closed when the glass doors are open. This mesh screen helps keep embers from getting out of the fireplace area.
  • Always use a metal mesh screen with fireplaces that do not have a glass fireplace door.
  • Install stovepipe thermometers to help monitor flue temperatures.
  • Keep air inlets on wood stoves open, and never restrict air supply to fireplaces. Otherwise you may cause creosote buildup that could lead to a chimney fire.
  • Use fire-resistant materials on walls around wood stoves.

Safely Burn Fuels

  • Never use flammable liquids to start a fire.
  • Use only seasoned hardwood. Soft, moist wood accelerates creosote buildup.
  • Build small fires that burn completely and produce less smoke.
  • Never burn cardboard boxes, trash or debris in your fireplace or wood stove.
  • When building a fire, place logs at the rear of the fireplace on an adequate supporting grate.
  • Never leave a fire in the fireplace unattended. Extinguish the fire before going to bed or leaving the house.
  • Soak hot ashes in water and place them in a metal container outside your home.

Protect the Outside of Your Home

  • Stack firewood outdoors at least 30 feet away from your home.
  • Keep the roof clear of leaves, pine needles and other debris.
  • Cover the chimney with a mesh screen spark arrester.
  • Remove branches hanging above the chimney, flues or vents.

Protect the Inside of Your Home

  • Install smoke alarms on every level of your home and inside and outside of sleeping areas. Test them monthly and change the batteries at least once a year. Consider installing the new long life smoke alarms.
  • Provide proper venting systems for all heating equipment.
  • Extend all vent pipes at least three feet above the roof.

*Editor's Note: In the attached video, the man takes the ashes and places them in snow away from the house. Oxford Fire Chief Scott Pelletier, who is also Oxford's fire marshal, recommends taking it a step further and dousing the hot ashes with water to make sure they are completely out.

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