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Since fireplaces have been a popular accent in houses for a long time, many of us have a fireplace that can be used for heating and cooking in an emergency. Some houses have wood stoves instead. If you have either, remember you are building a fire inside the house so you need to be careful. You have to be sure that the smoke and the carbon monoxide are going up the chimney and not into the house, and you have to be certain that you are not introducing any other poisons into your home. If you ever plan to use your fireplace or wood stove, have it checked annually by a professional chimney sweep. Early autumn is the best time for this, after the birds have migrated, so that any nests that may have been built in the chimney can be removed before winter use. This is another part of the October safety check.
If you have gas in your fireplace and the gas is working, use the gas for cooking and heating. If you are going to use the fireplace for heating only, use it the way you usually do. If you are going to cook in the fireplace, pull out the decorative stone logs and any ash or coals left from wood fires and cook on it like an outdoor grill.
If you don't have gas in the fireplace or you are using a wood stove, be very careful about the wood you use for heating and cooking. Use only firewood that you have stored or cuttings from trees that are fallen or dead. Do not use scrap lumber or debris unless you are very certain that it has not been painted, varnished or treated in any way. The wood from your fallen deck may look like there is nothing on it, but if it was treated as lumber or at any time during the time it was a deck, cooking over the fire from it may poison the food.
Check the chimney and flue before starting a fire, even a gas fire. Look at the chimney carefully from all angles to be sure there is no damage. If you see anything that might be damaged, don't use the fireplace or stove. Look up the chimney with a flashlight to make sure the damper is open and there are no obstructions in the chimney. If everything looks OK, start a small fire and see if the smoke goes up the chimney without difficulty. A fire may put smoke into the room for a few minutes while the chimney heats up. If this lasts more than 5 minutes, something is wrong. Put the fire out and don't try to burn anything there.
Even when the chimney is clear, in order for a fireplace or stove to work properly, there must be intake air coming from somewhere. If your house is tightly sealed to improve the insulation in winter, you cannot use a fireplace without opening a window or door to create airflow. The smoke goes up the chimney because hot air rises and the smoke is hot. If the fire can't pull cold air from the room into the fire and up the chimney, then this is not going to work and the smoke will come into the room.
Kerosene heaters are the one type of fuel burning space heater that it is alright to use indoors, but you have to be very careful. The heater needs to be in good repair and contain fresh kerosene. It should have a battery powered lighter that eliminates the need for matches and a safety shutoff which extinguishes the flame if the heater tips over.
The heater should sit in the middle of a large room well away from furniture, draperies, clothing, paper and anything else that can catch fire. If there are pets or small children in the house, the heater should be surrounded by a fence designed to protect people from coming in contact with the heater. Never attempt to move a lighted heater. Even the carrying handle can be hot enough to burn.
Good ventilation is critical if you are using a kerosene heater. As it burns, the kerosene heater consumes oxygen and produces carbon dioxide. If there is too little oxygen in the room, the heater will also begin to produce carbon monoxide which is poisonous. A kerosene heater can actually use up enough oxygen in a closed space to smother you. These heaters should only be used in a large space that is well ventilated.
Never put kerosene in a heater that is burning or still hot. When the heater is cool, fuel it outside in a safe place. Use an approved siphon pump and do not fill the heater more than 90%. Kerosene expands as it gets hot and can overflow the tank. Wipe up any spills immediately. Check the wick. If it is dirty, clean it according to the manufacturer’s instructions. And obviously, do not smoke while working with kerosene.
Do not store a kerosene heater with fuel in it. Kerosene actually goes bad over time. It can change chemically and become spoiled. Keep the heater away from flammable solvents such as aerosols, paints, lacquers and the like. Use only fresh 1-K grade kerosene to reduce odors and noxious gases during burning. And, never use gasoline, camp stove fuel or other substances in a kerosene heater since this may cause an explosion.
Turn off the heater before going to sleep. This type of heater needs to be watched constantly to prevent fires and to be certain that it is burning cleanly. Kerosene heaters can be great for warmth, but they can also poison or burn you very easily.
If you have a gas stove in the house, you may be able to use it for cooking. Some stoves require electricity to spark the gas or to control the pilot light, others do not. If your stove is designed to function without electricity, you can safely use it to cook but not for heat. Most gas stoves are not vented, since the amount of carbon monoxide produced by cooking is insignificant. This is not true if you turn the oven on high and open the door to try to heat the kitchen. The stove can generate enough carbon monoxide to kill you.
Do not try to override any safety mechanism on your stove in order to get it to function. Used properly, gas appliances are safe and efficient. Tamper with them and they become very dangerous. They can cause fires, explosions and poisoning with carbon monoxide or the gas itself.
The same problems apply to gas furnaces. They are vented to get rid of the carbon monoxide, but they depend on electricity to run the fan, the thermostat and sometimes the pilot light. In a winter storm, keeping the gas furnace running may be the best use for a generator but you have to plan ahead. Have an electrician or a heating expert set up the furnace to receive generator power and make sure you know the proper way to connect it.
Every house should have at least one A-B-C type fire extinguisher. A house fire is much more likely to destroy your home than a disaster no matter where you live. Mount the extinguisher on the wall in the kitchen where it is most likely to be needed. The mounting should be between the stove and the exit from the house. This allows you to fight a cooking fire but still get out safely.
Before starting to fight a fire, get everyone else out of the house and away from the fire. Since you have planned for house fires, everyone should know an escape route that does not take them past the fire. Make sure you still have an escape route too. If the fire is getting away from you or may cut you off from the exit, stop fighting it and get out now.
Have someone call the fire department as soon as you start to fight a fire. Fortunately, fire dispatchers do not accept cancellations. If you call, they will come out, even if you call back and say you have put out the fire. You would be amazed how often a fire that appears to be out is still burning inside the walls or up in the attic. A trained firefighter should make sure that a fire is really out, especially if it is a kitchen fire.
In a disaster you may not have a fire department available to call. You need to be able to put out a small fire yourself. When you are building fires to cook or keep warm, have water to douse the fire. Fill buckets or pots with water and keep them near the fire. Have the garden hose attached and ready to use. Keep the fire extinguisher handy as well, since electrical and chemical fires do not respond well to water.