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November 27. 2013 3:15PM

Fires more common in heating — not holiday — season, NH fire officials say

A new report from a national insurance company claims New Hampshire experiences more home fires during the holidays than any other state — a claim state fire officials don't necessarily agree with.

Allstate Insurance Company issued a report last week stating that new insurance claims data shows fire is a major threat to home security and safety for New Hampshire residents during the holiday season. According to the report, Granite State homeowners are most likely to experience a fire claim over the holiday season than any other time of year, claiming they increase 65.2 percent. Compared to the national average, fire claims are 58.5 percent more likely to occur in New Hampshire than any other state, according to the report.

The report doesn't say what timeframe constitutes "the holiday season" for the purposes of its study, and that's where state fire officials say their fire data differs.

"While we do not disagree with some of the fire prevention messages that Allstate has identified in their press release, we do question their statistical methodology," said Deputy State Fire Marshal Robert Farley, Commander of the Bureau of Special Operations with the State Fire Marshal's Office. "The increases that we see in the winter are not related specifically to the holiday season but rather a broader issue related to the heating season. The threat of fire here doesn't go away after the holidays."

Farley said Allstate discloses it used 200 insurance claims when creating its report.

"Not everyone files insurance claims, but 200 in a state of around 1.3 million residents — that's a small sample size," said Farley. "For the 24 years I have been involved in running the New Hampshire Fire Incident Reporting System, the leading cause of fires in New Hampshire has always been attributed to heating appliances. The main causal factors have been related to either lack of maintenance or improper installation."

Farley said most people would consider the "holiday season" to be the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. Statistics he provided from 2012 show that there were more structural fires in New Hampshire in November, January and February last year than in December. Farley's data shows 80 structural fires in November 2012, 115 in January, and 108 in February — compared to 64 in December.

"Two potential causes for fires which would normally be associated with the holiday season is candle use and cooking," said Farley. "When you look at the data, those two fire causes remain fairly steady throughout the year. Based upon this analysis, we can deduce that the reason for the increase in fires during the winter months is due to heating, not the holidays."

According to the Allstate survey, 65 percent of New Hampshire consumers lit candles for decoration during the holiday season, and 71 percent decorated their residences with electric lights. More than half (53 percent) of local consumers who drink alcohol during the holidays say they drink more during the holidays than they usually do throughout the rest of the year.

As of Nov. 20, six people have died in New Hampshire fires in 2013.

New Hampshire Association of Fire Chief's President and New London Fire Chief Jason Lyon last week said, "Now is a great time to make sure your smoke alarms are in working order and to review your home escape plan so that if in the event of a fire, everyone in your household knows how to get out quickly and safely."

Lyon passed along the following fire safety tips to residents for the coming winter months:

Cooking

• Pay particular attention while cooking, especially when using oils and grease. Cooking appliances should be kept clean of grease build-up, which can easily ignite, and always have a lid handy to cover and extinguish small pan grease fires.

• If a fire starts inside your oven, turn off the heat and leave the door closed to cut off the fire's air supply.

Holiday lights and Christmas trees

• Inspect holiday lights each year for frayed wires, bare spots, gaps in the insulation, broken or cracked sockets.

• To avoid overloading electrical outlets, do not link more than three light strands unless the directions indicate it is safe.

• Don't leave your lights burning overnight or while you are away from home.

Candle safety

• If you choose to light candles, place them in stable holders and display them where they won't be easily knocked down.

• Never leave lit candles unattended.

• Lit candles should not be placed on or near a Christmas tree or anything that can burn.

pfeely@unionleader.com


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