During the winter months there are two serious risks to people and their homes that can be avoided with a little preventive maintenance and a watchful eye.
After the temperatures fall and people rely on gas and fire for heat, local fire and medical personnel respond to an increased number of chimney fires and carbon monoxide leaks. Alpena Fire Department Lt. Robert Edmonds said a little bit of work on a fireplace and the installation of a CO detector can help prevent an emergency. He said making sure your chimney is clean before cold weather rolls in is very important.
"December, January and February is when we see the highest percentage of the chimney fires, which results in a higher number of house fires," Edmonds said. "Preseason we try to tell people inspect their chimneys and look for cracks or damage and then to clean them with a chimney brush once a month. If you have any concerns about the fireplace or chimney, your best move is to have a professional inspect it."
Edmonds said when a chimney fire is taking place, there are signs people can look for. He said people will notice an increase in the amount of smoke exiting the fireplace or woodburner into the house, and a sound that sounds similar to a jet firing its engines, except quieter, often will take place during a fire. He said the easiest way to see if a chimney fire is occurring is to go outside and look at the chimney itself.
"Go outside and look and if you see little flakes of creosote that will be drifting in the air or landing on the snow," Edmond said. "You may even see flames coming out of the chimney. If you see flames coming out of it, obviously you have a chimney fire and need to get your family out of the home and call the fire department."
Edmonds said burning dry wood is important because it burns hotter. He said refrain from burning plastics, trash and paper, because it also burns at low temperatures or melts.
When a chimney fire takes place it is typically easy for a person to notice. The same cannot be said when CO fumes fill a person's home. Edmonds said most calls dealing with carbon monoxide come from homes that have old furnaces or hot water heaters. He said most people don't realize they are being poisoned until after they have been sick for some time.
"When we get a call for carbon monoxide, it is either because a detector went off, or the people are feeling the effects of the poisoning," Edmonds said. "The symptoms are basically the same as the flu with headaches, stomach ache and vomiting. We will get called for a medical condition and then find out it has been going on for a week, two weeks or three weeks, and that is when it starts to appear as carbon monoxide related."
Most local hardware or department stores stock the carbon monoxide detectors, and Edmonds said they are simple to install. He said CO is heavier than smoke, so it collects closer to the ground, unlike how smoke rises. He said most detectors plug into walls into the sockets, which are at the perfect height.
"Most of them are AC and you can just plug in," Edmonds said. "Most outlets are about 18 inches or so off the ground, which would be about the perfect height to test for the gas."
Steve Schulwitz can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5689.