As cold lingers, fire officials worry about risks posed by portable heaters

File: Sales clerk Jamie Leviner adjusts the display of space heaters at Coligny True Value Hardware on Jan. 5, 2010, on Hilton Head Island.
File: Sales clerk Jamie Leviner adjusts the display of space heaters at Coligny True Value Hardware on Jan. 5, 2010, on Hilton Head Island. The Island Packet

As Beaufort County braces for a week of sub-freezing temperatures, local fire departments hope residents won't burn down their homes trying to heat them.

Heating devices are the second leading cause of house fires nationally, and area firefighters say they're ready for an influx of calls this week as forecasters call for temperatures about 20 degrees below average.

"When those temperatures start to dip down, we're on our toes," said Burton Fire District Chief Harry Rountree.

Statewide, fire calls and fire deaths increase from November through March, according to statistics from the S.C. Fire Marshal's Office. Fires caused by heating devices are the leading cause of fire deaths in the state's rural areas where alternative heat sources such as space heaters are more widely used than central heating systems.

"Unfortunately, we're in line with the state and national average," said Lee Levesque, spokesman for the Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District. "It's just a matter of odds. You have more sources of fire in the winter than you do in the summer."

Cinda Seamon, Hilton Head Fire and Rescue Division public education officer, said the island's fire service also was bracing for a potentially busy week.

"I don't know that we're expecting more calls, but it's always a concern," Seamon said. "It's getting colder and people are using space heaters and fireplaces. We always anticipate the possibility of more problems and calls for service" when it gets colder.

Portable space heaters are of particular concern. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission blames the appliances for about 120,000 house fires each year.

"Our biggest problem with space heaters is when they're plugged into extension cords and left running," said Lt. Dan Byrne, spokesman for the Beaufort Fire Department.

"Extension cords are not designed to be permanent wiring, so it's dangerous when someone plugs a portable heater into an extension cord and leaves it running for hours."

A portable heater is believed to have caused a fire early Monday in the 1300 block of Church Street in Beaufort. Byrne said the heater was plugged into an extension cord when the wiring short-circuited, igniting the home's roof. The fire caused minimal damage to drywall in the attic and a few rafters, Byrne said. No injuries were reported, though Byrne said the home still was uninhabitable Tuesday.

"We don't really have a problem with kerosene heaters or fireplaces," Byrne said. "People see the flame and are aware of the dangers, but people kind of forget about safety with portable heaters. The heaters must be kept three feet from anything ignitable. All the heater has to do is warm that object up to its ignition temperature and you've got a fire."

Another risk is carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas often generated by portable and kerosene heaters, as well as gas fireplaces, according to the Palmetto Poison Center in Columbia.