Winter Prep Guide: Protect your home, yourself from fire

Ask the Expert

Most fatal fires happen right where you think you are the safest — in your own home, according to Jennifer Mieth, public information officer for the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services.

Many break out at night when people are asleep, Mieth said, and “your sense of smell goes to sleep when you do.’’

As you prepare your home and yard for winter, waiting until the last minute to turn on the heat, there are things you can do to keep you and your family safe from fire. There were 14,173 residential-building fires last year, with 44 deaths, according to the Department of Fire Services. That represented 84 percent of all structure fires reported in the state and a 2 percent decrease from 2015. It was the lowest number reported since 2008, but we can do better.

“There are a lot of things people don’t know and a lot of misconceptions,’’ said Susan McKelvey, communications manager for the National Fire Protection Association. “There are so many things we can do to dramatically reduce the risk of fire — sometimes things people don’t think about.’’

We asked Mieth, McKelvey, and the state’s fire marshal, Peter J. Ostroskey, for fire-prevention tips:

Check your alarms

“It is important to have working smoke alarms,’’ Mieth said. “People that have battery-operated alarms [need to] replace the batteries twice per year to make sure they are working.’’

Smoke alarms last only 10 years, she added; after that the sensor deteriorates.

The National Fire Alarm Code requires a smoke alarm in every bedroom, on every level of the home, and in any area other where people sleep.

“There is a sense of overconfidence at home,’’ Mc-Kelvey said. “People don’t think fire will happen to them, so they don’t take it seriously.’’

Don’t forget to have working carbon monoxide detectors on every floor, too.

Make an escape plan

“The key is to have two ways out’’ of each room, Ostroskey said, “so you have the best chance if one is impeded for some reason.’’

Today’s homes burn a lot faster because so much furniture is made of synthetic materials, Mieth said. Home fires double in size every minute, and they emit toxic gases, she said. (Watch a video shot by the Brockton Fire Department in 2003 that shows how quickly fire can spread. Click here.)

When making an escape plan, McKelvey said, ensure all exits are clutter-free, and designate a meeting place outside, in front of your home.

Once you are outside, do not go back in for anything, she said.

Be careful cooking

To prevent a fire, “stay in the kitchen when you are cooking,’’ Meith said. If there is a fire, “put a lid on it, turn the heat off, and resist the temptation to move the pot.’’

And never leave the house or go to a bed with a major appliance like a stove or dryer running or Christmas lights or space heaters on, she said.

Keep the electronics to a minimum

“As a general rule, one plug, one outlet,’’ Meith said. “Heavy-duty appliances need to be plugged directly into the wall. Don’t plug an extension cord into a power strip.’’

And check your cords. Make sure that they are not pinched and that nothing is sitting on top of them, Ostroskey said.

Need to charge your phone for work in the morning? “Never leave a lithium ion battery-powered appliance charging after it is fully charged, so it is best to break the habit of leaving cellphones charging overnight,’’ Mieth wrote in an e-mail. “I have a terrible photo of a fire at Framingham State of a laptop left on the bedclothes, starting a terrible fire, and [I] have seen photos of cellphones under teens’ pillows starting fires. . . . Battery-operated appliances like this generate heat. . . . charge your appliances on noncombustible surfaces.’’

Have a licensed electrician check your home’s wiring every 10 years. Small upgrades and making sure that grounds are secure usually don’t cost a lot, Meith said. “As our electrical usage over time grows, it’s important to have your system keep up. . . . Just as you need a new roof every so often, one should plan to make upgrades to the electrical system.’’

Keep it clean

“We are coming up on heating season, so make sure chimneys, woodstoves, and other fossil-fuel equipment is clean,’’ Ostroskey said. Also, get your gas heaters checked before turning those on.

Be sure to dispose of ashes in a metal container with a lid — not in cardboard boxes, recycling bins, trash barrels, plastic bags, or with other refuse, Mieth said.

Keep an eye on those portable heaters

Establish a 3-foot circle of safety around your space heater, free of anything that can burn, Meith said, and be sure to turn it off before you go to sleep. Avoid using an extension cord; plug any heat-generating appliance directly into a wall outlet.

“Daisy-chaining’’ extension cords was a factor in both fatal space heater fires last year, she said. “Extension cords don’t have the safety of a circuit breaker tripping when overloaded.’’

“Use the proper appliance [to heat your house]; don’t use a stovetop or oven for heat,’’ Ostroskey said.

Store flammables away from the furnace

Keep a 3-foot safe zone around the furnace, free of anything that can burn, Mieth said, adding that paint and chemicals should be stored in a shed or a locked garage. Gasoline, however, should not be stored in an attached garage.

And what kind of fire extinguisher should you have on hand?

“I do not recommend fire extinguishers,’’ except as a way to help you escape, Mieth said. “Most people are not trained to use extinguishers, [and] most home extinguishers are not recharged periodically, so you don’t know if they’ll work.

“It is a contradictory message to get out and stay out,’’ she said.