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SAFETY: Winter’s still here, stay safe when warming your home

BEMIDJI -- Northern Minnesota made it through the deep freeze, but it’s still cold and homes still need heat. The winter heating season can last through April, and occasionally into May, which means precautions need to be taken to keep homes safe and fire-free.

The Bemidji Fire Department doesn’t seem to have a down season. Spring and Autumn have dry spells when grass fires are dominant. Summer can be hot and arid and in the winter, we bring the fire indoors.

“The start of the heating season is pretty busy for us,” said Bemidji Fire Captain Chad Hokuf. “Every year is different.”

Before the winter heating season starts people should inspect their heating sources. Call your local heating company to conduct an inspection. Clean and open vents and check smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Smoke detectors should be mounted on every floor of the house and within 10 feet of each sleeping area.

“When you’re sleeping is when you’re most prone to be overtaken by smoke, fire or carbon monoxide,” Hokuf said.

Heating sources with open flame like chimneys and wood stoves should have airways cleared. Make sure you know how to open and close the flue before starting the first fire of the year. Burn dry, seasoned wood. Green wood will expel soot and clog a chimney.

“Creosote builds up and closes the chimney opening,” Hokuf said. “When that happens, it gets hot and catches fire.”

Chimneys aren’t meant to contain fire, Hokuf explained, they’re a passageway for smoke. He said chimneys should be inspected by a professional chimney sweep annually.

In order to conserve on heating costs, or to compensate for lack of heat flowing to a particular part of a home, portable heaters are often used. Hokuf said the important thing to remember with heaters is to make sure the heaters have proper clearance. Most need to be 3-feet away from contact with any materials.

A lot of electric heaters are designed to shut off if they tip over. Hokuf also advises making sure the heater has a good power supply and avoid using extension cords in excess.

“Just be smart about it,” Hokuf said. “You wouldn’t want your drapes hanging on your baseboards.”

The most common place for fires to start in the home is in the kitchen. Cooking fires are the number one cause of structure fires in the winter. Hokuf said cooking fires start when food is left unattended.

“By the time a smoke detector goes off, the fire could already have climbed up the cupboards and reached into the ceiling,” Hokuf explained.

Fire extinguishers should be kept nearby and can be purchased at most home and hardware stores. Extinguishers can cost as little as $10 and most come with an indicator that shows if the device is charged.

Fires spread quickly through mobile homes once ignited, but the potential for fire also exists beneath the structure where water flows. Hokuf said plumbing pipes often freeze and people attempt to thaw the lines with torches.

“People shouldn’t use any device with an open flame,” Hokuf said. “An extinguisher should also be accessible when thawing plumbing lines.”

Fire fighting in the winter comes with obstacles that summer fires don’t have. Water freezes when it’s cold and once winter snow starts piling up passageways become narrower.

“In the winter time it’s hard because you have snowbanks and cars crowding you,” said Second Assistant Chief Chris Loebs.

Primarily, people need to be aware of their surroundings, create a fire safety plan and keep prevention in mind.

Winter fire safety tips

  • Fence in fireplaces with a spark screen.
  • Never leave candles burning unattended.
  • Have a safety plan. Tips can be found at
  • Keep a non-combustible (metal) can filled with water or sand outside for cigarette butts. Make sure it is not touching the building’s wall.
Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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