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House fires can start where least expected

MonPurdy founder Share Your Soles nonprofit gets hug after she walked through her fire-damaged Worth apartment 6900 block 111th Place

Mona Purdy, founder of the Share Your Soles nonprofit, gets a hug after she walked through her fire-damaged Worth apartment in the 6900 block of 111th Place after a fire gutted it in Worth, IL, on Tuesday, January 31, 2012. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

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Stay Safe

Make sure smoke detectors are in good working order.

Check for the Underwriters Laboratories label on appliances.

Match extension cord to the gauge required by the appliance.

Don’t overload outlets or power strips.

Fireplace and fire pit embers can take days to cool. Dispose of them in metal cans, far from flammable materials.

Get chimneys inspected in the fall.

Have old appliances checked and maintained.

Discard frayed or pinched cords.

Check and oil attic fans regularly.

Be mindful of fireworks and smoking.

Be careful when using space heaters.

Consider getting an override on large appliances.

Keep real Christmas trees watered; keep open flames away from real and fake trees.

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Updated: October 3, 2012 6:06AM



A frayed cord on a table lamp.

An overworked attic fan.

An extension cord that’s too small for the job.

The leading cause of house fires these days is unattended cooking. Yet each of the aforementioned items was to blame for igniting a blaze in a Southland home during the past year.

“House fires are usually attributed to a human act,” said Rocky Carlson, district battalion chief for the North Palos Fire Protection District. “And often that act involves cooking or candles or space heaters.”

Food preparation was to blame in 44 percent of all house fires in 2010, according to the National Fire Protection Association. But fires can start where a homeowner might not see flames, such as in a burned-out appliance compressor or overworked extension cord.

Carlson said a pinched or frayed cord was to blame for a January fire that destroyed the Worth apartment of Mona Purdy, founder and CEO of Share Your Soles, although Purdy is doubtful that was the cause.

Purdy lost just about everything in the blaze, which also left the other apartment dwellers scrambling for a new place to live.

Her advice to apartment residents? “Get insurance, get insurance, get insurance.”

Fire can also break out when the compressor on an old appliance goes out, when the lint trap of a dryer gets clogged or when a small-gauge extension cord is plugged into a large-gauge air conditioner, as was the case recently in Blue Island.

“Make sure your extension cords are rated for the appliance they’re plugged into,” Blue Island Fire Chief Terry Vrshek said. “Too many people think if they plug it in and it works, it must be OK. That’s not always the case.”

Luckily, no one was home when the cord ignited, Vrshek said, but it will be months before the family can move back in.

Vrshek said last month his department responded to a small fire started by a frayed cord on a vacuum cleaner.

The thing is, even a small fire can quickly become a major blaze, given that today’s homes are filled with highly flammable materials, he said.

“They collapse sooner because they’re built of light-weight construction materials,” Vrshek said.

Neighbors told Rose Anne Crocker that her Hometown home was engulfed in flames within five minutes.

The cause of the July blaze that left Crocker’s mother hospitalized is still under investigation, said Terry Brennan, fire inspector for the Hometown Fire Department.

But Crocker said she’s been told the fire likely started when a coil in the freezer overheated.

Because the appliance was only 8 years old, Crocker said, she never worried it would be a safety hazard.

Her advice to homeowners, “Take pictures of everything you own. And keep them updated. It’s really hard to remember everything you had after a fire destroys your home.”

Crocker lost many cherished items that are not replaceable, including her pet cat, a 1905 hope chest that belonged to her grandmother and a rocking chair that she sat in when her now-33-year-old daughter was an infant.

It’s important to stay on top of product recalls, Brennan said. And there are other steps people can take to protect themselves.

Simple things such as not overloading power strips and keeping dryer vents clean are among them.

Brennan said he uses dryer lint to ignite fires in his backyard pit.

“That’s how flammable it is,” he said. “People don’t realize that a simple thing like cleaning the dryer vents and lint traps can prevent a fire.”

It’s an easy way to keep family and belongings safe, he said. So is replacing broken or chipped electrical outlet covers, which he said can cost less than a buck.

Norman Rick, deputy chief of the Oak Lawn Fire Department, said homes go up like gasoline today because they’re filled with synthetics, which are petroleum products.

“Synthetics burn hot and fast,” he said.

All the more reason to keep hot items away from highly flammable items.

Laptop and phone chargers frequently get hot. Rick said be sure to keep them well ventilated. Don’t put them under a couch cushion or blanket.

If you’re willing to pay extra, he said, you can have overrides placed on air conditioning units and other appliances, including dryers and dishwashers. When the machine senses a fire, it will automatically shut the appliance down.

One place most homeowners never think to check for fire safety is the attic, Rick said, but they should.

“An attic fan needs to be oiled and maintained,” he said. If it burns out, it can be disastrous given that most attics are hot, airy and filled with dry wood. One Oak Lawn family learned that the hard way this summer.

Maintenance is key to keeping your home safe, Rick said.

That includes replacing all smoke and heat detectors every 10 years and making sure your carbon monoxide detector is working.

“Why stake your life on something that’s 10 years old?” he said.

If a fire does break out in your home, Vrshek said, “Close the door to the room where the fire is, call 911 and get out.”

Don’t try to put it out yourself because flames can spread quickly and smoke can cause disorientation, he said.



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