Practicing fire safety: Homes threatened by discarded ashes, space heaters

Franklin Fire Dept.

Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer

Dumping those furnace ashes behind your home is easy until days later, when embers can lead to a residential fire. Electric heaters are another common wintertime safety hazard when proper care isn’t taken, igniting curtains or bedspreads.

“It’s common to see a house fire caught from either one,” said Franklin Fire and Rescue Chief Matt Breedlove, who responds to five or six calls per season related to the two missteps. A couple years ago, a Cowee homeowner suffered a total loss as a result.

On Friday night, a home on Watuaga Road in Franklin was saved when nine firefighters and three fire trucks were able to contain and put out a one-third acre brush fire within five feet of a home after smoldering embers lead to a fire three days after the homeowner dumped them outside.

“Ashes from the fireplace will burn up the back wall of a residence – we’ve had all kinds of things,” Breedlove added, noting that homeowners need to take precautions even with the area’s recent bout of rain. “It’ll sit and smolder for days.”

Franklin Fire and Rescue sent a 2,000-gallon tanker, Engine 11 which typically responds to residential fires with 1,250 gallons of water per minute and Engine 1153, a 4 x 4 “pump and roll” fire truck equipped with forestry tools that can shoot water while creeping up on an advancing fire.

“One of the dangers of putting ashes out and leaving them, you could be asleep in the middle of the night before they flame up,” Breedlove said.

While water was sprayed over the brushfire, six firefighters hopped out with fire rakes to create a perimeter, by removing forest floor fuel. Within 42 minutes, Franklin Fire and Rescue was able to turn the scene over to Mountain Valley Fire Department.

A home fire Sunday night was started by a space heater, said Macon County Fire Marshal Jimmy Teem.

“It started in the area of the space heater,” he said. “Evidently something was stored too close to it.” 

Staying safe

Franklin Fire and Rescue Chief Matt Breedlove demonstrates a fire rake, used to remove forest floor fuel and create a perimeter to prevent the spread of a brushfire.

Firefighters advise that ashes be dumped on an area of clean dirt, with all fuel from the forest floor – such as leaves and twigs – removed. Additional measures are needed to prevent the coals from continuing to cook.

“If you’re going to dump ashes this time of year, I recommend you separate them with a rake and wet them down with a hose,” Breedlove said.

Teem also warned homeowners not to put their ashes in a plastic bucket or on a wooden deck.

“Have you a metal bucket,” Teem insisted. “And don’t set that bucket on the deck, even if it’s metal.”

The fire marshal said emergency management has received calls for many deck fires a week or more after embers had been left out.

“Up to a week later or even longer, they’re still active. Those embers are still hot,” he said. “We’ve had several incidents of that over the years.”

Space heaters used in homes can also tip over and lead to fires. Breedlove advises keeping such heaters away from bed linens, blankets and curtains.

“I would recommend clearing a space of about 4 feet around the heater,” he said. In addition to radiant heat, which can melt and cause nearby flammable items to catch fire, such heaters are usually not equipped with a safety switch. That means they will not turn off when they tip over, which could set a carpet on fire.

Teem advised homeowners to read manufacturer’s instructions, but to maintain at least a three-foot perimeter around a space heater. He added that many chimney fires are also reported when a crack in the flue allows highly flammable creosote buildup to start a blaze.