On extremely cold days, safe heating practices can prevent fires

Published 9:13 am Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Days of extreme cold weather can be uncertain for members of the Austin Fire Department.

According to Austin Fire Chief Jim McCoy, how busy the fire department is depends on how responsible residents are when trying to heat their homes.

“If their furnace isn’t up to the task, some people will open oven vents or light their ranges to stay warm, and bad things can happen,” he said. “Keeping vents on high-efficiency furnaces clear can help them work properly.”

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McCoy said that other common causes of fires during extreme cold include lighting candles and not paying attention to space heaters.

“Some people will use (space heaters) to dry gloves or other wet articles of clothing,” he said. “Space heaters should have a clear space of three feet that is free of combustible materials.”

In the event the fire department is called, the extreme cold can wreak havoc on equipment. McCoy said that hose lines and air tanks can freeze and sometimes fire engines have issues with the temperature.

“Things don’t like to work in the cold, especially me,” he said with a laugh.

Despite the cold weather, the AFD does not get many calls for cold-related emergencies.

“We’re in a dangerously cold area and people have been told enough to know to be careful,” McCoy said, advising those who do not have to go anywhere to stay inside and those who have to go out to wear proper attire.

Austin Fire Commander Tom Schulte said that stranded motorists with no heat in their vehicles should call 911 before calling a tow truck. Firefighters will help keep stranded motorists warm while the tow truck arrives.

Schulte also advised that cars stuck in a ditch can keep the engine running for warmth, but warned to make sure the tail pipe is clear so the car can properly vent exhaust.

While block heaters in vehicles can be plugged in to prevent the engine’s anti-freeze from freezing, Schulte said that frayed or bad wiring could cause an electrical fire.

McCoy urged property owners to make sure fire hydrants on their property are clear of snow to allow firefighters easy access. Homeowners are responsible for clearing a three-foot area and a path around fire hydrants.

“Hydrants need to be cleared because every second counts,” McCoy said.