‘It was a small miracle it wasn’t worse’ and serves as a warning for winter’s chill

If the weekend’s chilly winds reminded you it’s time to kick on the heater for the winter months, one Whatcom County family’s near miss with disaster should serve as a warning of the fire dangers associated with doing so.

Whatcom Fire District 14 crews responded at 5:55 a.m. Saturday to the 8500 block of Golden Valley Drive in Maple Falls for the report of a residential fire, according to the PulsePoint app.

“It turned out to be one of those deals that could have been really serious,” District 14 chief Jerry DeBruin told The Bellingham Herald.

The family, which was asleep at the time, was awakened by a fire alarm and the smell of smoke, DeBruin said, but couldn’t locate a fire.

When District 14 crews arrived, DeBruin said they found that the smoke’s source was the backside of a couch that had been positioned against an electrical wall-mounted space heater after the family recently moved into the relatively new home.

“The heater kicked on overnight when the temperatures dropped,” DeBruin said. “They didn’t realize it, but the couch was right up against the heater and it caught the backside on fire. It had pretty much extinguished itself by the time we got there — it burnt out the motor and the wiring inside the heater and tripped the breaker. It was a small miracle it wasn’t worse.”

Fortunately, other than the damage to the couch and heater and ventilating smoke from the house, DeBruin said this Whatcom County family averted a far worse outcome, but it should serve as a reminder as the outside temperatures dip and area residents reach to flip up the heat.

DeBruin suggested homes using wood stoves for heat should make sure they get their chimney’s checked and the areas in front of heat sources should all be cleared to make sure furniture or other items haven’t been moved against them during the summer months.

“You need to check all those things out and be aware of any dangers,” DeBruin said. “Now that it’s getting colder, it’s time.”

According to FEMA statistics, heating is the second-leading cause of home fires after cooking, accounting for nationwide annual averages of 45,900 fires, 205 deaths, 725 injures and $506 million in property loss between 2013 and 2015.

The peak time for heating-related fires is between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., FEMA said, with 21% of all heating fires occurring in January.

Winter home safety

FEMA made the following suggestions to keep your home safer from fire during winter months:

Keep anything that can burn at least 3 feet away from a space heater.

Make sure your space heater has an automatic shutoff, and turn heaters off when you go to bed or leave the room.

Plug portable space heaters directly into an outlet, rather than an extension cord or power strip, and only use heaters from a recognized testing facility.

Keep a glass or metal screen in front of fireplaces to contain embers and sparks.

Do not burn paper in a fireplace or wood stove.

Put a fireplace or wood stove fire out before going to sleep or leaving.

Put the ashes from a fireplace in a metal container with a lid at least 3 feet outside your home.

Keep anything that that can burn at least 3 feet away from a wood stove.

Have your chimney professionally inspected and cleaned each year.

Make sure your furnace is inspected each year and keep it clear of anything that can burn.

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.