As temps drop, fire risks rise

Fred McCormick

Nearly one year ago, Christine Lucas and her family were reeling from the loss of their house and belongings in a fire.

“It was a very overwhelming and surreal feeling,” Lucas said. “You hear of it happening, but nobody thinks it will ever happen to them.”

Lucas believes a malfunctioning lamp ignited the blaze that displaced her family and disrupted their lives. But Black Mountain Fire Department fire prevention officer Spencer Elliott said there are plenty of reasons why fire risks increase during winter.

“You have a time of year when people have their houses a little bit more closed up than they usually do,” he said. “There is statistically an increased occurrence of fires in the winter time. And many of those are due to heating sources.”

Because most people aren’t focusing on fire safety in their day-to-day life, things like cleaning ash out of the fireplace can lead to danger.

“It’s common practice for people to clean ash out of their fireplaces this time of year,” Elliott said. “And what a lot of people will do is put the ash in a bucket, thinking ‘Well, I haven’t had a fire in a few days,’ and put that bucket out on the porch. The reality of it is that there could be a coal down in there, and all it needs is oxygen to ignite. So we tell people to always use a metal bucket when doing that.”

Proper maintenance of chimneys and other heating sources is important as well, he said.

“Chimneys are, by and large, safe as long as they are maintained. It’s important that we make time to do that,” Elliott said.

Taking every precaution will not necessarily prevent a fire, he said. The cause of the blaze that destroyed the Lucas’s house was never determined. But the fallout was devastating.

Lucas’s daughter Brooklyn saved the family’s pet sugar glider. But youngest daughter Hannah lost her prized possession, a new electric guitar. Personal items that survived the actual fire were destroyed by efforts to extinguish it.

The family suddenly found themselves in need of a place to live.

“We stayed in the Comfort Inn for a week,” Lucas said. “After that a family from my sister’s church opened their home to us for a few weeks. Then we went to some friends houses in Canton, Waynesville, Fairview and South Asheville.

“During most of that time my husband had to stay separate from us because there either just wasn't room for everyone, or it was too far for work.”

In addition to the instability created by the blaze there was the emotional and physical toll for the family.

“The hardest part was the clean up of the old house,” Lucas said. “A lot of it had to be done by hand, and my daughters and I worked on it while my husband worked.”

The five months that the family worked to prepare their empty lot for a new home also proved to be difficult, she said. The experience taught them some valuable lessons about life.

“We would find pieces of stuff that had meant a lot to us,” she said. “It really taught us that material things aren’t what matter. Stuff can be replaced.”

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Lucas was primarily thankful for her family’s safety. Their prompt escape deserves credit for their safety, she said.

A properly planned escape route is crucial to protecting your family from fire, Elliott said.

“You should have a planned evacuation route and a back-up plan,” he said. “Having two ways out is great, but only if you practice it. If you work in a factory or doctor’s office or wherever, you will do fire drills. But where do you spend more time, at home or at work? So it is just as important to have a plan and practice it at home.”

Elliott said that the current standard for smoke detectors is one per room, checked monthly to ensure that they are in working order. He added that while it is the department’s job to protect everyone’s lives and property, the public can help.

“We do the best we can, but it is easier for you to protect yourself with a little bit of planning and preparedness,” he said.

For the Lucas family the trauma of losing everything left scars that continue to manifest even a year later.

“My youngest daughter still panics every time she hears an alarm go off, and my oldest daughter worries about our pets being alone in our home,” Lucas said. “I think we all look down the hill to make sure the house is OK every time we pull down the driveway.”