Warning as residents turn to space heaters in cold snap

Joyce Kelly

As the cost of fuel rises and space heaters look like an attractive option for warming homes in the winter, fire officials are urging people to use caution to avoid potentially deadly fires.

Though fires caused by space heaters are not frequent, they are often deadly, with one out of every 14 causing a fatality, according to the Office of the State Fire Marshal.

This winter and last, firefighters responded to several space heater fires in Framingham, Holliston and Ashland, officials said.

On Feb. 9, 2007, a woman living in a Beaver Street apartment in Framingham destroyed her home using a space heater, said Framingham Fire Marshal Brian Mauro.

``She plugged in an old-style electric space heater and put it right next to her bed. During the night, it heated the bedding material to the point where it caught on fire and engulfed the whole room eventually'' and damaged the rest of her apartment, Mauro said. The woman's heater was a round, disc-shaped version with an electric coil in the middle - which is a dangerous variety when it comes in contact with combustible material, he said.

Most often, space heater fires ignite by human error: placing the heater too close to flammable material, or plugging it into an extension cord that is not rated as high as the heater itself, said Ashland Fire Lt. and Public Information Officer David Iarussi. People who use space heaters should avoid extension cords, or at least use a thick, appropriate power cord.

``I wouldn't use a cord 20 feet (long) to have my heater on - that's not smart. Don't run a heater cord under any rugs or furniture to try to hide the cord,'' Iarussi said.

The best space heaters have three prongs, are United Laboratories-approved, and have safety features like an automatic shut-off, Mauro said. He recommends oil or ceramic heaters.

Iarussi also urged people to check for the United Laboratories seal of approval, and in particular, recommends the electric heaters that resemble accordions. They are sealed and perform like a radiator, but heat oil, Iarussi said.

If a space heater has a visible coil that turns red as it heats, warned Iarussi, ``I would definitely not use that.''

Iarussi also advised against old electric equipment that may be worn out and pose a danger.

``If it's not a modern appliance, then I would definitely discard it - throw it away, get rid of it,'' Iarussi said. Older models are often unsafe and a fire is easily sparked when in proximity to combustible materials like curtains and clothing, he said.

Iarussi cautioned against carelessness with all mechanical, electric appliances, as toasters, dishwashers, and microwaves are just as susceptible to causing fires as any space heater on the market.

``It's just that this time of year, people are using space heaters more. Any appliance can malfunction, depending on the age; if they can malfunction, they can start a fire,'' Iarussi said.

Joyce Kelly can be reached at 508-626-4423 or

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