- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Fire officials are preparing for a busy and deadly time of the year, following two fatal fires in the region this weekend.

“Whenever the cold-weather season hits, it generates increased activity for firefighters and paramedics,” Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department spokesman Mark Brady said yesterday.

Virginia Avents, a 65-year-old grandmother, died Saturday when an unattended candle started a fire in an Adelphi home in the 10400 block of Truxton Road.

Fairfax County investigators have yet to determine the cause of a fire Sunday in a Reston-area apartment complex that killed a man. The fire started about 6:30 p.m. in a garden apartment in the 1400 block of Northgate Square. Daniel L. Schmidt, spokesman for the county’s Fire and Rescue Department, said yesterday medical examiners will need dental records to identify the victim.

Officials are expecting more fires as temperatures drop and residents heat their homes.

They said most fires are cooking-related, but during colder months they are caused by candles, fireplaces, furnaces and space heaters.

“Unfortunately, these types of devices generate fires,” Mr. Brady said.

Many of the problems are caused by residents’ restarting furnaces and fireplaces without servicing them.

In Prince George’s County alone, there already have been five fires this year started by heaters or such alternative heat sources as fireplaces. The fires have caused $75,000 in damage but no injuries.

Mr. Brady said using space heaters improperly can be extremely dangerous. He recommends buying newer models with automatic shut-off switches and leaving plenty of empty space around the heaters.

“The rule for space heaters is you give space heaters [plenty of] space,” he said. “You need to provide at least 3 feet [between] a space heater and combustible material.”

Virginia officials last year reported 73 fires caused by heater problems, 204 fires caused by furnace and boiler malfunctions, and 213 fires caused by problems with chimneys, fireplaces and heating stoves.

D.C. fire department spokes-man Alan Etter tells residents to have their furnaces checked by a contractor, and to replace furnace filters at least once a month. He said carbon-monoxide poisoning also is a concern in the winter because residents sometimes use unconventional methods to heat their homes.

“The phenomenon we see a lot in D.C. is people using stoves for supplemental heat,” Mr. Etter said. “The family just opens the stove door and cranks up the gas. It’s extraordinarily dangerous, and there have been recorded fatalities because of this. It’s just unwise and potentially fatal.”

Renee Stilwell, a Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department spokeswoman, said the No. 1 cause of house fires in the county during fiscal 2004 was uncleaned stoves and furnaces. She said they accounted for 47 fires and that unattended candles are a major cause of fires all year.

“Fifteen years ago, [the candles] were not a problem. It used to be more of a seasonal problem we’d see around the holidays,” Miss Stilwell said. “But because of aroma candles, people use them year-round. If you leave the room, put them out.”

Officials urged residents to check holiday decorations and electric blankets for frayed cords and wires and to keep their Christmas trees from getting too dry.

They also said a working smoke detector remains the best way to be warned about a fire and to prevent extensive fire damage.

“We always recommend having a working smoke detector,” Mr. Brady said. “It increases the chances of surviving a fire by 50 percent.”

Mr. Etter said D.C. residents can obtain a free smoke detector at the department’s Fire Prevention Division in Northwest. Call 202/727-1614 for more information.

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