When it comes to structure fires, Franklin County stands alone. Statistics from 2014 indicate that Franklin County is the only county in Massachusetts where heating is the leading cause of residential fires, as opposed to cooking.
The statistics, which are the most recently published by the Massachusetts Fire Incident Reporting System (MFIRS), indicate 48 percent of 2014’s residential fires in Franklin County were caused by heating, whereas cooking caused 24 percent.
By comparison, in Hampshire County, 51 percent of 2014’s residential fires were caused by cooking and 20 percent were caused by heating, and in Berkshire County, 49 percent were caused by cooking and 27 percent were caused by heating.A common cause
The data comes as no surprise to local fire chiefs, who have experienced many heating-related incidents in their time as firefighters. They believe the numbers have to do with wood stoves and pellet stoves being a popular method of heating in the area.
“We probably have a higher percentage of wood burners in this neck of the woods,” said Northfield Fire Chief Floyd “Skip” Dunnell III, who has been a firefighter since 1971 and also works as a heating service manager with Sandri. “In all honesty, a very low percentage are from central systems. People go about getting them maintained every year and there’s safety systems where if something goes wrong the system automatically shuts down. With wood burning, you don’t have those kinds of things.”
Whately Fire Chief John Hannum, who has been a firefighter for 43 years, also spoke to the popularity of wood stoves, a method of heating he has in his own home.
“The first three houses on my street all have wood stoves,” he said. “It’s because the price of oil is up.”
“It’s a cheap alternative to gas or electric, (especially) if you own your own land,” agreed Bernardston Fire Chief Peter Shedd, explaining that residents often harvest their own wood from their property.
Plus, Hannum added, should electricity go out for days at a time, having a wood stove ensures steady heat.
Jennifer Mieth, spokeswoman for the state Department of Fire Services, said that while it’s difficult to explain the trend in the statistics, most people in Franklin County live in single-family homes, where wood stoves are more common than in apartments and multi-family homes that are more often found in urban areas.
The fire chiefs recalled numerous fires over the years that were caused directly or indirectly by wood stoves or pellet stoves. The Warwick fire early last month that resulted in the death of Lucinda Seago, 42, and four of her children was found to be caused by the ignition of combustibles that were too close to the wood stove. Similarly, a 2013 fire in Whately that killed Mary Golonka, 94, and her daughter Sonia Golonka, 64, began due to a decayed metal fireplace that allowed sparks to come in contact with the home’s structure, Hannum recalled.
Dunnell cited a December fire at 38 School St. in Northfield that severely damaged a barn and workshop. It had been caused by a malfunctioning wood pellet stove.Preventive action
The fire chiefs emphasized the need for residents to be diligent in ensuring their heating systems are functioning properly.
“Usually the main problem is inattention or lack of maintenance,” said Shedd, who has been a firefighter for 35 years. The same issues occur with pellet stoves as with wood stoves, he added.
“All the components have to be there in good working order,” Shedd said. “If you have a super good stove, but an old cracked chimney, that’s where the problem’s going to be.”
Often, residents use wood that is too fresh, causing creosote to build up in the chimney, which in turn causes fires. Shedd advised of buying seasoned wood, and storing it in a dry place.
Improper disposal of ashes is also a huge problem, the fire chiefs agreed.
“It only takes a little bit of a breeze and it’s back burning again,” Shedd said.
Dunnell advised storing the ashes in a metal container and not on a wood surface, but ideally concrete.
For Dunnell, ensuring all residents have working smoke detectors is the most important safety measure to prevent fire-related tragedies, as well as simply recognizing that a fire can happen anywhere.
“The biggest issue we have in Franklin County, statewide and nationwide is the attitude that it’s not going happen and people not maintaining their smoke detectors,” he said. “That’s a bigger issue as far as I’m concerned.”
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