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Unplug That Space Heater: Alternative Heating Contributes To Surge In Winter Fires

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Paul Carroll/Flickr
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Some Vermonters resort to secondary heating systems like wood fireplaces and space heaters when their oil burning systems are overly taxed.

Vermont may have avoided some of the most extreme sub-zero temperatures during the Polar Vortex a few weeks back, but even still, this winter has been a cold one.

Staying safe means more than just wearing an extra sweater. There’s an up tick in residential fires during the winter. The region has been hit with several destructive blazes over the past few months.

Heating systems cause many of them, second only to kitchen fires. There have been at least 30 calls for Red Cross assistance this month alone.

Red Cross Communications Director Doug Bishop says this year’s numbers have been startling.

“Not like anything we’ve seen that anyone can remember in recent years,” said Bishop. “Last year we were called to respond about 180 times. And that was 70% greater than just four years ago. So it’s really been unprecedented.”

Bishop says while this winter’s stats won’t be in until the end of the season, he says the cold is in at least in part to blame for the surge in house fires. He says accidents can happen when Vermonters resort to alternative heating methods.

“Space heaters, obviously fireplaces and the like. That creates a greater likelihood of fire, unfortunately,” said Bishop. “So we see a spike in the winter time."

A Richmond mobile home owner caused a mobile fire trying to use an open flame to heat frozen pipes. Bishop says getting creative can get dangerous.

“That’s a recipe, unfortunately, for disaster sometimes,” said Bishop. “We’ve seen fires in our region this winter that were caused by trying to use a blowtorch to thaw a pipe. So there’s a real danger there.”

Some Vermonters resort to secondary heating systems like wood fireplaces and space heaters when their oil burning systems are overly taxed.

"Often times landlords are not that concerned about the operation of their heating systems." - Richard Moffi, Vermont Fuel Assistance Program

Richard Moffi is the chief of the Vermont’s fuel assistance program. He says the colder temperatures are causing people to burn through their heating fuel faster than usual this year.

“People use up a lot more fuel that they would if temperatures were closer to normal,” said Moffi.

For lower income Vermonters, that may mean stretching already limited resources just to say warm.  Moffi says the average fuel benefit is just under $800 per household this year. 

He says proper furnace maintenance- a tune-up about once a year- is crucial. But renters don’t always have that option.

“That’s difficult when folks rent, because often times landlords are not that concerned about the operation of their heating systems,” said Moffi.

But Moffi does have one piece of advice for renters hoping to stretch their heating dollar, whether or not they receive fuel assistance.

“If you’ve got furniture pushed up against a radiator or heating vent, you really want to move your furniture,” Moffi said. “Let that heat circulate into the house.”

If income-eligible Vermonters still need to apply for fuel assistance, it’s not too late for this winter. Applications are accepted until the end of February.