Poll Says Wash. Residents Lack Home Fire-Safety Preparedness

November 17, 2005

If last year’s trends hold true, about 10,000 Washington residents will experience a home fire of some degree. According to a recent poll by Seattle insurer PEMCO, only eight in 10 Washington homeowners have a fire extinguisher, and of those, more than half store them in a risky location.

While most homeowners have taken some steps to protect their homes from fire damage, many fall victim to simple mistakes.

“We know that 82 percent have purchased fire extinguishers for their homes, and we also know that 55 percent of those people store their extinguishers near the stove,” said Jon Osterberg, PEMCO spokesperson. “While that may seem like the logical place to store an extinguisher, we know from investigating thousands of fires that the flames from stove fires often prevent homeowners from reaching the extinguisher.”

In those instances, even small grease fires can quickly escalate into something large without clear access to an extinguisher, Osterberg said.

The data, part of the PEMCO Northwest Insurance Poll, found that of those Washington homeowners who have a fire extinguisher, 42 percent seldom or never check its pressure gauge.

“When you push the lever on your extinguisher to put out a small fire, you expect it will work,” Osterberg noted. “But it won’t if it has lost its charge over time. Homeowners must remember to look at the gauge periodically to make sure it’s fully pressurized.”

PEMCO recommends homeowners take the following steps to protect themselves against a fire in their home:

* Check your fire extinguisher’s gauge every 30 days.
* Be sure to recharge or replace your fire extinguisher immediately after it’s been discharged, regardless of how much or how little of its contents were used.
* Store your fire extinguisher in the kitchen (but not near the stove), garage, or near a door or exit. That way, if the fire is too big to be put out, you can make a hasty exit.
* If you burn wood regularly or burn more than half a cord annually, PEMCO recommends you have your chimney professionally cleaned at least once a year.
* Burn only dry, seasoned wood, and burn it as completely as possible. That prevents buildup of creosote, a black, sticky byproduct that causes about nine out of 10 chimney fires.
* Never burn cardboard boxes, wrapping paper, treated wood, particle board, trash, or Christmas trees, which build creosote and can spark a chimney fire.

Those steps are particularly important as cold weather sets in. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, more residential fires occur during the winter months than the other two-thirds of the year. Nearly 40 percent of residential fire-related injuries and 50 percent of residential fatalities occur between early November and the end of February.

According to PEMCO’s poll, Washington homeowners fall short in fire- prevention preparedness when dealing with fireplaces and wood stoves. The PEMCO Northwest Insurance Poll showed that only 24 percent of Washington homeowners who use a wood-burning stove or fireplace clean their chimneys every year.

“As the holidays approach, many people use fireplaces that have sat dormant for months, sometimes years,” Osterberg said. “Creosote in the chimney can ignite, starting a chimney fire and filling a house with smoke that’s guaranteed to ruin your Thanksgiving dinner.”

When viewed together, data provided by the Washington State Fire Marshall and results of the PEMCO Northwest Insurance Poll suggest that chimney cleaning has a big impact on fire prevention. In 2004, only 5 percent of the statewide total of residential fires took place in the Spokane area, whereas 39 percent occurred in Seattle and surrounding areas.

Compare that with a finding from the PEMCO poll, which showed 49 percent of Spokane County-area homeowners who use a wood-burning stove or fireplace clean their chimneys every year, versus just 16 percent in King County.

Other interesting observations from the PEMCO Northwest Insurance Poll:

* Twenty-three percent of Spokane County-area homeowners who use a wood-burning fireplace or stove seldom or never clean their
chimneys, versus 46 percent in King County. Statewide 41 percent
seldom or never clean their chimneys.
* Statewide, on average 58 percent of homeowners with a fire
extinguisher check its pressure gauge often or occasionally, compared to 61 percent in the Spokane County area, 48 percent in King County.
* Of Washington homeowners with a fire extinguisher in their home, 55 percent keep it near their kitchen range or oven, making the
extinguisher hard to access if a cooking fire breaks out. Eighteen
percent of those surveyed store a fire extinguisher elsewhere in the
kitchen, and 27 percent keep it outside the kitchen.
* Wood stoves are also a fire hazard. Fewer Eastern Washington
residents (45 percent) have a wood-burning stove or fireplace in
their homes than those in Western Washington (57 percent).

Anyone wanting to compare their answers with respondents to the PEMCO Northwest Insurance Poll can do so by visiting www.pemco.com, where complete results are posted.

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