Eric Trojan, owner of Modern Chimney and Duct Cleaning, knows a couple who once had a duck land in their fireplace after falling through their chimney. Because it was an open fireplace, the duck was able to run from the fireplace through much of the house, wings on fire.
That's why people need a cap and screen on top of their chimney, Trojan says.
Thankfully, the family's fireplace flaw didn't lead to a larger fire. Others' stories are less bizarre and less fortunate.
While keeping houses warm in the winter, heaters, including fireplaces and furnaces, can pose a danger if precautions are not taken.
Last winter, at least five houses burned in Elkhart because of improper use of heating devices and one person died of carbon monoxide poisoning. One house burned after a space heater was too close to bedding, setting it on fire. Another was caused by an overloaded circuit with several running space heaters and a big kerosene heater on the same circuit. Two others occurred after families did not clean out creosote built up in their chimneys.
Cpt. Bruce Nethercutt of the Goshen Fire Department is a fire investigator and has looked into several winter house fires.
Most of the winter house fires he has seen are caused by portable space heaters.
People "put them too closely to things that ignite easily," he said, listing couches, bedsheets and curtains. Kids can easily burn themselves on them, or accidentally knock them over. Nethercutt said he has also seen people not properly store fuel or put gasoline into a kerosene heater.
"I would avoid using kerosene heaters altogether if possible, especially the older ones that still have open flames," he said.
Nethercutt said the safest way to heat your home is with a furnace. "That sounds easy," he said explaining that in today's economic climate, many people are looking for heating alternatives after their gas and other utilities have been turned off.
"People just need to slow down and use a little more common sense with those heaters," he said.
Trojan said that anyone with a wood-burning stove or fireplace and chimney should have it checked every year by a certified chimney sweep before winter begins and it will be in heavy use. They will be able to check for any creosote build-up and clean it appropriately. Creosote build-up occurs in all chimneys, he said. Blockages, from creosote or other objects, like bird's nests, can cause smoke in the house, carbon monoxide poisoning and chimney fires, which can spread to the rest of the house.
Trojan also suggests that people with chimneys:
* Have a glass screen to keep sparks from flying into the room.
* Have a cap and screen over the top of their chimneys to keep critters out of the chimney and sparks from jumping onto the roof.
* Don't burn trash in their fireplaces. "That's a good way to start a chimney fire, by burning your trash," Trojan said.
* Don't start your fires with gasoline or anything flammable. Start your fires with newspaper or fire-starting logs.
* Don't leave the house with the fire going.
* Keep the damper closed when a fire isn't going and open it when there is a fire.
* Know that "chimney cleaning logs do not clean the chimney." They break down the creosote for a chimney sweep to clean, but don't actually clean on their own.
Dick Dirmyer of Michiana Fireplace and Home Center said that just like furnaces and wood fireplaces and stoves, people need to have their gas fireplaces and stoves checked before the winter. That's the prominent problem he sees--people don't check their equipment until it does get cold. Then, when they want to turn it on and warm their house, it doesn't. Something is wrong with their heater, but most inspectors are booked up, so people just need to wait.
Dirmyer's tips for those with gas-powered equipment are "good maintenance during the use of the unit and start it ahead of time, like you would a furnace."
Like fireplaces and stoves, furnaces should also be inspected annually by a qualified professional.
Nancy Havens, co-owner of Heilman Heating and Air-conditioning in Elkhart, said that the inspector will also clean the furnace.
"Over the summer, burners will get a little rust in them and spiders love to build nests in them," she said. Inspectors will also check the ignitors, flame rods, pilot light and the flues. Holes in the flues can leak carbon monoxide into the house, Havens said.
Not all the work is left up to professionals.
Havens said that people should check their air filters monthly, but that how often a person needs to change the filter depends on how many pets and kids live in the house and how often people smoke or burn candles in the house. The more kids, pets, burning candles or smokers in the house, the more often the filter should be changed.
"I always tell people if you have a day you pay all your (monthly) bills, like your utilities and phone, just write it on a notepad to check the air filter," she said. She also suggested using a black marker to write the date of when a new filter is installed right on the filter, so that it's easy to keep track of how often it's being changed.
People should also be sure to not block registers with couches or other large pieces of furniture.
"They shouldn't put big pieces in front of the registers; that can lead to real problems." Havens said that blocked air flow can damage the heat exchanger in the furnace. Cracks in the heat exchanger can also leak carbon monoxide into the rest of the house.
The Red Cross of Elkhart County tested old fire alarms and gave out new ones to 10,740 households in the county. People can pick up free smoke alarms leftover from the drive at the Red Cross' Elkhart County headquarters at 721 Riverview Ave. in Elkhart between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. They are limiting one per family, and people who pick them up must have identification with a current address.
A carbon monoxide alarm can also monitor the levels of the odorless, invisible gas in a house and alert residents when levels are dangerously high.
AVOID CARBON MONOXIDE POISONING
The Indiana Poison Center offers resources online about carbon monoxide safety. For more information call 800-222-1222 or visit online at www.clarian.org/poisoncontrol.
HOW CAN I REDUCE MY RISK?
* All fuel-burning appliances, furnaces and fireplaces should be checked annually by a professional
* Place an approved carbon monoxide detector on each floor of your home, near bedrooms
* Never use a charcoal grill indoors
* Don't run any gas powered equipment inside a garage
WHAT SHOULD I DO IF THE ALARM ON MY CARBON MONOXIDE DETECTOR GOES OFF?
Always take your alarm seriously and take immediate action:
* Account for everyone in the house, including pets -- move them to fresh air
* Do not air out the house -- this will make it difficult to find the source of CO
* If anyone has symptoms, call 911 immediately. If everyone is free of symptoms, call the fire department or gas company for assistance
OTHER HEATING TIPS
* Make sure wood stoves are properly installed away from combustible surfaces, have good floor supports, and have proper ventilation so that the smoke can exit the home safely. Never use flammable liquids (such as gasoline) to start a fire or keep one going.
* Kerosene heaters are not allowed in many areas. Check before you use one.
* Space heaters need space. Keep items at least 3 feet away from each heater.
* For wood stove fuel, use only seasoned wood; never use green wood, artificial logs or trash. Seasoned wood looks dark, or gray when compared to green wood. Seasoned wood is white on the inside.
* Never thaw frozen pipes with a blow torch or other open flame. Use hot water or a laboratory tested device, such as a hair dryer.
* Never use the stove or oven to heat your home.
For more tips from the United States Fire Administration visit www.usfa.dhs.gov.