Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - January 8, 2010

Don't let smoke get in your eyes

How to prevent fires at home

by John Squire

"My entire house was damaged. I lost all my possessions," Melanie Hibbs said.

On May 1, 2009, the control panel of Hibbs' dishwasher short-circuited and her kitchen caught fire. Even though the fire was limited to the kitchen, smoke seeped through every room and smoke damage ruined most of her possessions.

Eight months later, the house is still undergoing repairs.

Hibbs wasn't home at the time, but a neighbor saw the smoke and called the Palo Alto Fire Department.

"By the time I got home, the fire department was there," she said. "When they let me go in, the house was still radiating heat. Everything was covered in a thick layer of acrid smoke."

Eight home fires were reported in Palo Alto last year. Although residential fires are down as a whole, many of the fires could have been prevented, according to Palo Alto Fire Marshal Gordon Simpkinson. These fires have been caused by appliances, gas lines and electrical shorts.

Faulty appliances are a regular cause of home fires, he said, noting that Hibbs' dishwasher was subject to recall. He recommends being aware of major recalls.

"The Consumer Product Safety Commission website (cpsc.gov) is a pretty good resource. It's a central repository for appliance recalls," Simpkinson said. He suggests taking an inventory of appliances and checking if any have recalls in effect.

"Take a look at the major appliances in your house: your microwave oven, your regular oven, your washer dryer, your dishwasher."

Although residential fires are down as a whole, many of the fires could have been prevented, he said. These fires have been caused by appliances and gas lines, but there are many ways for fires to start in the home.

A Midtown house explosion in September was caused by a gas leak. Older houses such as the Midtown Eichler are especially vulnerable to gas leaks because the pipes are buried underground and leaks are difficult to detect.

"In new construction, the gas line starts above ground and stays above ground," Simpkinson said. Gas lines are maintained by Palo Alto Utilities on the street, but it is up to residents to check lines on their properties.

"The electric company has no control of the homeowner's side," he said.

If there is a suspected gas leak, Palo Alto Utilities has a free troubleshooting line at 650-329-2161.

Menlo Park Fire Marshall Geoffrey Aus said that electrical fires are also common in older homes.

"Houses built 20, 30 years ago were wired for appliances they had then," he said, noting that it's a case of "new demand on an old system," with computers and large TVs causing new strain. According to Aus, this makes surges more common and causes breakers to malfunction. Surge protectors are an easy fix. Spreading out where large power drains are plugged in is also important.

With winter taking hold, fireplaces are seeing much more use. The chore of cleaning them out is important, but can be dangerous if done wrong.

"People clean out their fireplaces and that's a good thing," Aus said. He warned that ash can still burn if disposed of improperly.

"It's once a year that we'd get a home fire because of that," he said. Ash should be put in a metal pail and doused in water, Aus said, and paper bags and wooden boxes should be avoided.

Candles and trees are common during the holidays. Both can be fire risks.

"The most important thing is to watch trees and don't keep them near heaters." Aus said. Menlo Park Fire Protection recommends keeping candles away from anything flammable and using a sturdy candle holder with a low center of gravity.

The number-one cause of home fires and fire injuries is cooking accidents, Simpkinson said. He noted that the National Fire Protection Association recommends watching the stove when cooking, and checking the grill and oven regularly.

"These days, people just seem to have a lot on their mind and become distracted," Simpkinson said.

"Most fire fatalities are due to smoking though," Simpkinson said. "The risk goes up dramatically if someone smokes inside the home."

He said that if someone smokes in bed, the risk is even higher. Fires caused by cigarettes are especially dangerous because they are usually smoldering fires. The carbon monoxide that comes from a smoldering fire can be a silent killer.

Another way carbon monoxide can get into a house is through a malfunctioning water heater or furnace.

"If the smoke alarm doesn't wake you up, there's a good chance you'll suffocate," Simpkinson said. This is why Simkinson strongly recommends buying a combination smoke and carbon-monoxide alarm.

"Smoke alarms are not intended to last more than 10 years. Check them and replace them," he said. Although the official recommendation is to sound-check smoke alarms once a week to see whether the battery is dead or not, a simple check of the flashing indicator light usually works as well. Simpkinson still suggests making an audio check every month or so.

In terms of placement, Simpkinson said one smoke alarm should be in a common area such as a kitchen or living room, one in an area outside the bedrooms and one on any additional floor, including a basement.

"In the last several years, we've been recommending that one be placed in each sleeping room as well," he said.

Another important step to take for families is having an evacuation plan.

"It's especially good to rehearse with children," Simpkinson said. "If you actually talk about it and rehearse it, they're much more likely to remember it."

He said that refreshing children on the basics, staying low to avoid smoke and checking to see if doorknobs are hot, is an important way to keep everyone safe, so the first time they have to put everything into practice isn't a real incident.

Thanks to improved construction and appliance safety, Simpkinson said fires have become less common in homes, but a little preparedness can go a long way to make Palo Alto's experience the rule and not the exception.

Editorial Intern John Squire can be e-mailed at jsquire@paweekly.com.

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