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Staying house fire safe this winter

During the colder months of winter, it is common to have a heater, a fire, or an electric blanket on to help stay warm. While using these heat sources will fend off the chill, they can also be fire hazards if not used with care.

Last updated: August 25th 2022
Older people are at the greatest risk of dying in a residential fire, so it is important to know how to keep yourself safe. [Source: iStock]

Older people are at the greatest risk of dying in a residential fire, so it is important to know how to keep yourself safe. [Source: iStock]

Key Points:

  • On average, more than one person dies in a house fire in Australia every week and people over the age of 65 are at the greatest risk of dying in a residential fire
  • It is vital for you and anyone you live with to be prepared for the event of a house fire with a complete Fire Action Plan
  • Many objects, appliances, devices and amenities can be potential fire hazards if not maintained often or used safely

A study commissioned by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council found that people over the age of 65 are at the greatest risk of dying in a residential fire and that the risk increases with age.

Residential fires cause more deaths each year than floods, storms and bushfires combined and on average, more than one Australian dies in a house fire every week.

So with these grim realities in mind, what can you do to avoid being involved in a house fire and keep fire safe?

Common causes of a house fire

Many house fires are caused by similar factors or incidents and it is important you check that all of these areas in your house so you can minimise the risk of a fire.

These include:

  • Leaving cooking unattended on the stovetop
  • Electrical cords, curtains, tea towels, long sleeves and oven cloths too close to the stovetop
  • Sleeping or leaving the home with electrical appliances like an electric blanket on
  • Faulty electrical wiring in the home
  • Overloaded power points, double adaptors and/ or power-boards
  • Electrical cords or cables running under rugs, mats, bedding and/or pillows
  • Smoking in the home, particularly in bed
  • Unattended lit candles
  • Heat build up in light fittings and lamps

It is important to maintain the electrical areas in your home, particularly at a time of the year when you are using a lot of electricity.

If you are concerned about your safety in your home, you can organise an electrical safety check, where professional electricians check your switchboard, accessible powerpoint, and electrical appliances.

Home fire escape plan

It is important you and anyone you live with creates a Home Fire Escape Plan for if or when a fire occurs.

You should ensure everyone in the household knows what to do, which can even include conducting fire drills to practise.

Make sure everyone knows two ways out of each room in the home, and establish a meeting place outside for everyone inside to flock to. Once safe at the meeting point, do not go back inside and call triple 000.

Other fire safety measures you should consider include:

Smoke Alarms, fire extinguishers and fire blankets

Every home should have a properly maintained smoke alarm, fire extinguisher and fire blanket.

The absence of working smoke alarms can increase the possibility of a fatal fire by 60 percent and smoke alarms were not fitted in most of the homes where deaths occurred in a house fire.

Correctly located smoke alarms in your home can give you early warning of a fire and the best chance of getting out as smoke often obscures vision and causes intense irritation to the eyes.

Combined with the effects of the poisons in the smoke, smoke can cause disorientation, impaired judgement and panic, reducing your ability to find an exit.

Most fire-related deaths result from the inhalation of toxic fire gases rather than from direct contact with flame or exposure to heat. For extra protection, install more than just the minimum number of smoke alarms in your home and that any interconnected 240V photoelectric smoke alarms are installed properly to provide the best protection across a range of fires.

Electrical items

There are many electrical faults and common mistakes made that can cause a fire to start in your home.

You can plug your electronics into surge protectors. Since a fire is more likely to occur if there is a surge in power, a surge protector keeps the extra electricity out of your devices which can cause it to catch fire.

If you are leaving the house, unplug electronic items to stop excess electricity flowing through them. Devices like computers and televisions use electricity even when they are not on, which means they could experience a surge or overheat and cause a fire.

If you have an electric blanket, it is important to thoroughly inspect and test it for overheating and scorching before putting it on your bed. You should never sleep with electric blankets on, leave the house without switching them off or leave weighty objects on the bed when the electric blanket is on.

You should always follow manufacturer’s instructions for care and storage and get it checked by an authorised repairer if you suspect overheating or replace it with a new one.

Never leave flames unattended

Regardless of what kind of flame it is, whether you are cooking or burning a candle, you want to ensure you are watching it at all times. If you start cooking anything or begin to light a fire in your fireplace, you never want to leave it unattended.

Watching these types of flames will allow you to quickly identify any problems and address them immediately. Places in your home where you are using these types of flames should have a smoke alarm and fire extinguisher in them.

Flammable items like fabrics, paper, and even hair should always be kept away from excessive heat or flame.

No smoking inside

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable fire-related deaths, with the bedroom and living room identified as the most common areas of fatal fires.

Where the smoking status of victims was known for residential fires, 65.4 percent were smokers and 26.7 percent of fires were caused by smoking.

Smoking in bed can be fatal as tiny embers and ash from cigarettes and pipes can smoulder unnoticed and develop into flames.

If you do smoke, it’s important to always do so in a well-ventilated area and to completely put out the cigarette before you throw it away. Cigarettes have a variety of additives and materials inside of them that can continue to burn even if you think that you have put them out.

Always ensure smoking materials are thoroughly extinguished before leaving a room into sturdy non-combustible ashtrays which you should empty into an outside bin.

If you smoke outside, make sure to watch out for stray ashes and put the cigarette out entirely before throwing it away, as it can cut down on this risk.

Therapeutic wheat bags and hot water bottles

Wheat bags or wheat pillows fabric bags that are heated in a microwave oven and then placed on the body to apply warmth are commonly used during winter by older people.

These items are often used to provide relief from the body’s aches and pains, or to keep warm, but if they are used incorrectly they are also a fire and burn hazard.

Older people should be cautious when using a wheat bag as there is a greater risk of scalding frail and fragile elderly skin.

When using a wheat bag, microwave it as per manufacturer’s instructions, taking care to not overheat the wheat bag.

You should only use wheat bags as a heat pack for direct application to the body, not as bed warmers.

And always allow the wheat bag to cool completely before reheating it again or storing it away. Also, watch for signs of overuse such as an over-cooked or burning smell, steaming or smoking, and/or charring. You should discard a wheat bag if you see these signs of overuse.

Getting out of a fire

In a house fire, the safest area for breathing is near the floor where the air is cooler and cleaner, so if a fire occurs get down as low as you can.

You should feel any closed doors using the back of your hand before opening them and if they are hot, keep them closed and find another way out. While you are getting out, yell “fire, fire, fire” to alert any others you may live with.

If you are inside the home and your clothes catch fire, stop and try to cover the fire by dropping to the floor and rolling backwards and forwards to smother the flames.

If you get burnt, do not attempt to remove burnt clothing from the skin, run your burn under clean, cool running water for at least 20 minutes, and do not use butter, ice, cotton wool or ointments on the burn.

Do a winter spring clean

Clutter in your home not only allows a fire to start spontaneously, but also causes it to spread excessively.

Too many things or objects cluttering an area can give fire plenty of space to spread, so get rid of anything you may not need or want anymore.

If this is a big task, reach out to your support network, family or carers to see if they can help you clear your house space of clutter.

You should also regularly change and check filters in your appliances such as heating systems and clothes dryers.

Your heating system needs a filter in order to run and if lint fills up the filter, the heat it is producing can ignite it. This is also why you should never leave these appliances on while you are not at home.

What other tips do you have for staying fire safe? Let us know in the comments below.

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Indoor activities for seniors on rainy days
Keep mobile and stay independent


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