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By Beth Botts

RISMEDIA, Oct. 9, 2008-(MCT)-October is National Fire Prevention Month, and that highlights a key concept: It’s way, way better to prevent fires than to think about trying to escape one, says Meri-K Appy, president of the non-profit Home Safety Council, based in Washington, D.C.

Still, every household should have working smoke detectors on every floor and in every bedroom, Appy says. Every family should create and practice an escape plan so everybody knows exactly how to get out, who to help out and where to gather outside if there is a fire. You may have as little as three minutes to escape the house before a fire spreads explosively, she says. Appy talked us through some of the big fire dangers in the average home. For more tips, see

1. Cooking. This is by far the No. 1 cause of home fires, Appy says. Especially frying, broiling and grilling. “People lose track of it,” she says: a child cries, the doorbell rings, the dog wants out and the next thing you know that pan you forgot on the stove is in flames. “Stay right there,” Appy says. “Stay by your pan. If you have to turn away, turn the fire off.” Always have the lid or a flat cookie sheet and long oven mitts handy on the counter top when you cook so you could smother a fire if need be.

Other tips:

– Never pour water on a kitchen fire.
– Rather than a fire extinguisher, try an aerosol product, Tundra Fire Extinguishing Spray (, which is easy to use and can smother a cooking fire from 4 feet away. If in doubt, get out and call for help.

2. Heating. In winter, heating overtakes cooking as the cause of home fires. The main danger is space heaters, especially electric ones. “Because they are small, they seem kind of harmless,” Appy says. But placed too close to furniture or draperies, or knocked over by a cat or child, they are deadly.

– Have 3 clear feet of space all around the unit.
– Never operate a space heater unless you are in the room.
– Watch children closely so they don’t get burned.
– Never go to sleep with the space heater on. Use it to warm the bedroom and then turn it off and bundle up in bed to sleep.

3. Electricity: Old wiring can be a significant danger, Appy says. If your lights flicker or you smell something funny or you run extension cords all over because you don’t have enough outlets, get a licensed electrician to make sure your wiring meets code requirements.

– Extension cords can be frayed or cracked, so avoid using them and never run them under furniture where they might be pinched.
– Use one cord per outlet plug. “You never want that kind of octopus thing going on,” Appy says.

4. Friendly fires: Candles, fireplaces, oil lamps and chimeneas feel warm and lovely, but they pose dangers too.

– Have fireplace chimneys inspected regularly for cracks or flammable creosote buildup.
– Try battery-operated electric candles.
– If you do use wax candles or oil lamps, make sure they are on a sturdy fire-proof holder and never leave the room while they are burning.

5. Smoking: It’s the No. 1 cause of fire deaths. A cigarette or cigar butt that falls on carpet, upholstery or a mattress can smolder for hours-until you’ve left the room or fallen asleep-and then burst into flames.

– If you must smoke, the best place to do it is outdoors, in a spot without combustible materials (not in the garage).
– Use a sturdy ashtray and have a cup of water handy to douse butts.
– And keep your matches or lighter locked up where children can’t get at them; playing with fire is the largest cause of child fire deaths. Don’t think hiding the lighter is enough; “kids know where it is,” Appy says. “They know it’s in your purse. They know it’s in the cabinet. And small children will move mountains to get at it.”

© 2008, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.