SIKESTON -- As area residents come to terms with the continuing cold weather, many are relying on their space heaters for some extra warmth.
But as convenient as the mini heaters are, fire hazards are a threat by them. The government recently issued a warning about the dangers of using space heaters.
Since winter began, a 13-year-old girl in Fairmount Heights, Md., and a 33-year-old woman in Kansas City, Kan., died in fires ignited by electric space heaters. Three children, ages 4, 5, and 9, from Rome, N.Y., died in a fire in which bedding was pushed up against a heater. Two girls, ages 7 and 4, from Walden, N.Y., died in a fire associated with a "wood pellet" stove and a mother and son from Long Island died when their fireplace sparked a fire in the basement. Four adults and five children in Seattle, Wash., all suffered carbon monoxide poisoning when they brought a charcoal-burning hibachi inside.
During this season, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is aware of at least 51 deaths from fires started by heaters and fireplaces. The group is reminding consumers to follow safety precautions when purchasing and using electric or fuel-fired heaters and fireplaces.
"CPSC has worked with industry to improve safety standards for heaters, but consumers must exercise care in how they use heaters and fireplaces," said CPSC Chairman Hal Stratton. "Every home needs working smoke alarms and a carbon monoxide alarm."
For the past five years, Garry Wilkerson has inspected homes for the Sikeston Housing Authority and admits of the 500 homes he visits for annual routine inspections, many of their residents often misuse their heaters.
"Space heaters are only for helping the heat, they're not for heating an entire home," Wilkerson explained. "They're also used for emergency situations."
In a recent year, there were about 10,900 residential fires and about 190 deaths associated with portable or fixed local heaters. There were 15,500 fires and 40 deaths associated with fireplaces and chimneys. And there were about 100 deaths from carbon monoxide from heating systems, ranges/ovens, and water heaters.
While the deaths are on pace with the 190 heater-related fire deaths per year, the recent frigid temperatures, particularly in the Northeast, create higher risks as many consumers scramble to stay warm, said Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the commission.
''The word needs to get out: If you have an old space heater, or a good working space heater that is close to flammable materials, you're putting yourself at risk,'' Wolfson said.
Miner Fire Chief Benny Thurston agreed often times people put their heaters close to something flammable like clothing, draperies or rugs. While fires involving space heaters are frequent in Sikeston and Miner, no space heater-related fires have occurred in Sikeston this winter, he added.
"But," Thurston reminded, "it's still early . . . you never know. Many times people will leave the house and leave their heater on. The heat builds up on something like a rug nearby and it starts a fire," he said, adding that space heater owners should keep proper maintenance on them.
Wilkerson, a housing standard inspector for Section 8 in Scott County, said the main thing is to not run the heater on an extension cord. Don't run it for long-term either, he said.
Heaters with a thermostatic control are good to buy, Wilkerson suggested.
Put smoke alarms up and make sure they're active all the time, he said. Also, the Sikeston City Hall has a recommendations program where they put smoke alarms in homes for free, he noted.
Consumers are also urged to use newer model heaters that shut off if tipped over and have special guarding over the heating elements. Other tips include:
-- Place the heater on a level, hard and nonflammable surface, not on rugs or carpets or near bedding or drapes. Keep flammable materials such as bedding, drapes and furniture at least 3 feet away from space heaters.
--Do not go to sleep or leave a room with the heater on.
--Be alert to the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning, a deadly invisible gas that emanates when consumers improperly use hibachis, grills or stoves to warm a home. The gas can kill if there is inadequate room ventilation.
-- Keep doors open to the rest of the house if using an unvented fuel-burning space heater. This helps prevent pollutant build-up and promotes proper combustion. Follow the manufacturer's instructions to provide sufficient combustion air to prevent carbon monoxide production.
Wolfson also encouraged consumers to be sensitive to the elderly or the poor, since those groups tend to misuse heaters or ignore the dangers to stay warm at a low cost.