As winter strengthens its icy grip – gas heaters, fireplaces, electric heaters, paraffin stoves, electric blankets, hot, home-cooked meals and more are being summoned to drive away the cold. Following an increasing amount of house fires – the most recent occurring in Bergbron, Soweto, Weltevreden Park, Doornpoort and Secunda – South Africans are urged to be more vigilant when it comes to fire safety.
According to City of Johannesburg Emergency Management Services spokesperson, Robert Mulaudzi, paraffin stoves and candles remain the most common cause of fires in informal settlements, whilst electric and gas heaters pose a significant challenge for EMS in other neighbourhoods. There are, however, countless other ways in which house fires can start.
“One of the biggest concerns around house fires is the belief that ‘it can never happen to me’,” says Ricardo Coetzee, Head of Auto & General Insurance, “The fact is that it can and will if you let your guard down. It takes only one ember close to a flammable material, one faulty gas hose or wire or one switch left in the ON or OPEN setting for you to become part of the statistics of total loss of your property… or worse.”
Auto & General offers the following safety tips to prevent winter warmth turning into a chilly catastrophe:
- Trust the pros: Make sure that all heating appliances and devices are SABS approved and, where applicable, installed by a certified service provider. Improperly installed heating devices have been the cause of numerous deaths in South Africa.
- Read and obey the manual: It’s crucial to operate devices within manufacturers’ limits. Setting a device to maximum heat for extended periods of time, not placing a device on a level surface, moving it around whilst in operation or charging a device for longer than recommended, for example, could pose a serious risk.
- Wire & pipe check: Make sure that appliances and other heating devices, as well as their piping and wiring, are in a good, safe working order. Take gas bottles to your nearest gas retailer to have them checked for leaks on a regular basis. This includes gas bottles used for heaters, braais and stoves.
- Keep an eye: In the US, fires resulting from cooking, and more specifically unattended cooking, is a major concern. Never leave heaters, electrical blankets, candles or stoves unattended. Exercise special caution before going to bed at night to make sure that all heat sources are turned off.
- Plug pressure: Do not overload one single power source. Unplug and switch off all electrical appliances that are not in use.
- Vent wise: Make sure that heating, electric and electronic devices are in a spacious and well-ventilated spot to prevent overheating. Do not cover heaters with clothing or other material that you wish to warm or dry.
- Light first, gas second: If you have a gas heater or cook with gas, light the match or lighter first, before turning on the gas.
- Declutter: Keep clutter to a minimum in and around your home, as this could add fuel to a fire, and keep flammable materials, including fuels, far away from heat sources.
- Smoke smart: If possible, install smoke detectors throughout your home.
- Arm’s reach: Have a fire extinguisher available, specifically near the kitchen and other areas where heat sources are frequently used. Make sure that you know how to activate and operate it.
- Emergency plan: Make sure that trip switches and emergency cut-off valves are in good working order. Have all emergency contact details within easy reach and don’t wait until a fire is out of control before contacting emergency response teams.
“Attention to detail and continued vigilance can save your home and/or the lives of your loved ones, so it’s imperative to not save fire safety discussions for later, when it may be too late,” Coetzee concludes. “In the event that calamity does strike, always remember, firstly, that your life is more important than any possession and, secondly, that having comprehensive insurance in place should be non-negotiable.”