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Heating is expensive in NH this winter. State officials say fire safety is essential.

A house and barn set on fire as part of a training exercise
Chris Jensen
/
NHPR
In 2015, fire departments from across the North Country used this abandoned farmhouse in Bethlehem as a venue for firefighting training exercises.

As energy costs reach highs many Granite Staters have never seen before, state officials are encouraging residents to take care as they try to stay warm this winter.

Heating equipment is a leading cause of house fires in New Hampshire, according to state data. Winter months tend to be especially dangerous.

“We're concerned that we could see an uptick in heating related fires above what we normally see this year because of the cost issues,” New Hampshire Fire Marshal Sean Toomey said.

To get connected with heating and electricity assistance, contact your local community action agency at capnh.org

It’s important to use heating equipment for its intended purpose, Toomey said, and maintain it as needed. Making sure your chimney is clean and that pellet stoves and fireplaces are maintained could help prevent chimney fires, which accounted for about 60% of heating fires in the past five years.

It’s also important to keep anything that could catch on fire at least 3 feet away from a heat source, Toomey said.

And testing smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms is one of the most important ways to prevent fatalities.

“Carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless, and it can kill you at elevated levels,” Toomey said. “Make sure you have working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in your home to protect you.”

New Hampshire’s fire code requires smoke alarms in all single- and multi-family residential properties, regardless of when the home was constructed. State law also requires all rental housing to have working fire alarms. All rental housing is also required to have working fire alarms and functioning heating equipment, capable of keeping the livable parts of the rental unit at an average temperature of at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you’re a renter who’s worried that your home doesn’t meet these standards, here’s some advice on what to do.

If you live in a rental property and you’re having trouble ensuring your smoke alarms are installed properly, you can reach out to your local fire department for help, Toomey told NHPR earlier this year.

Working alarms are only part of staying safe, though. Here are some other steps to protect your home against fires, according to state and federal authorities:

  • Be careful with space heaters. Make sure you only use these devices as directed, and keep them at least 3 feet away from anything that could catch fire — like clothing, bedding or curtains. When you leave the room or go to sleep, make sure to turn the device off.
  • The same goes for fireplaces and wood stoves. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says a wood stove should be kept at least 3 feet from anything flammable. They also say any ashes should be stored in a metal container kept outside and at least 10 feet away from your home, and a fireplace or stove should always be extinguished when you go to sleep or leave your home.
  • Use power cords with caution. Never plug a space heater into an extension cord, and limit each electrical outlet to only one heating appliance at a time.
  • Have an escape plan. Make sure you know how to exit your home in an emergency and make sure that path is clear. Ideally, Toomey said you should have at least two possible exits, whether through a door or a window.
  • Keep it clean. State officials advise having your heating system and vents inspected and cleaned each year.

Fires killed 10 people in New Hampshire in 2021, up from 7 the year before, according to information from the National Fire Incident Reporting System provided by state officials. The Department of Safety says the state has seen a decrease in the number of fires and the number of fire fatalities in New Hampshire, looking at data going back to 2013. 

Last November, an electrical fire at a Manchester apartment building killed one woman and sent a local firefighter to the hospital. Last December, a local woman was found dead inside a camper where fire officials reportedly “found several propane tanks that were feeding the fire,” though it was unclear whether those caused the incident.

Other incidents across the country have underscored the urgency of residential fire safety prevention.

Early this year, a fire in Philadelphia claimed the lives of at least 12 people, including eight children. As reported by WHYY, the rowhouse where the fire occurred was operated by the city’s public housing authority and “had battery-powered smoke alarms, no sprinkler system, and no fire escape.”

Just a few days later, a fire believed to be caused by a defective space heater — in a building where tenants complained about inadequate heating — killed at least 17 people in the Bronx.

Casey McDermott is a senior news editor at New Hampshire Public Radio. Throughout her time as an NHPR reporter and editor, she has worked with colleagues across the newsroom to deepen the station’s accountability coverage, data journalism and audience engagement across platforms.
Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.

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