ITHACA, N.Y. – Tompkins County has seen several fires break out in the past two weeks, and it is not a coincidence that they have appeared along with a cold snap in the area, according to local firefighters.

More than five fires have been reported within the county in the past two weeks, including one residential fire in Newfield on Wednesday which reportedly resulted in two fatalities. While law enforcement officials have not yet confirmed the fatalities, a family member at the scene confirmed to The Voice that two people had died as a result of the blaze.

The Ithaca Fire Department has responded to at least three fires in the past week that were related to furnace malfunction, said Lieutenant Tom Basher at the Ithaca Fire Department.

Some of the leading causes of fires are home heating, and especially with this recent cold snap, furnaces are working in overdrive,” Basher said. 

A wind chill advisory was issued throughout the county on Thursday, predicting wind chill to get as low as -20 degrees. According to the National Weather Service, temperatures are not expected to rise until after the new year. With temperatures dropping, Basher said it is more likely for people to start heating their homes with additional sources such as space heaters.

Basher said most of the fires in Ithaca have been a result of furnace malfunction.

It can be a higher risk in the cold months because people are heating their homes,” said Lieutenant Dan Scherer at the Trumansburg Fire Department. “If heating mechanisms are not maintained properly, they definitely cause a higher risk of fire.” 

Furnace maintenance, especially during the cold months, is imperative to winter safety while heating homes, Basher said. Areas surrounding home furnaces should be kept clear, especially of any flammable or combustible substances or items.

It makes good sense for people to make sure their home heating system had been inspected and is up to date,” Basher said. 

While malfunctioning furnaces have been one of the leading causes recently, both Basher and Scherer said space heaters cause an additional risk for a blaze. With more households using alternative mechanisms for additional heat as it gets colder, space heaters – especially when paired with older electrical systems – are more likely to cause a spark.

“Small heating appliances are especially dangerous because they’re usually electric and there’s a lot of current running through them,” Scherer said. “If it’s not a part of the houses’ standard hearing system, it could definitely be a risk.”

Basher said a space heater, if drawing electricity from an older electrical system,  may heat up the wires within the wall from drawing too much current.

Space heaters need to have a lot of room around them and the homeowner should make sure beforehand that the electrical system in the house can handle it,” Basher said. 

A space heater typically requires at least 3-4 feet of free space around it, according to Basher.

In addition to keeping heating mechanisms within the home maintained, firefighters have suggested several other safety tips in keeping homes safe from fires during the cold front. Chimney fires may occur more regularly in the winter months, but if a chimney is regularly cleaned and maintained the risk of fire is far less likely, Scherer said.

Basher said heat tape, which is used in many mobile homes, requires upkeep and maintenance as well when it’s getting cold. If a pipe is frozen in the home, Basher also suggested using a hairdryer to thaw it out rather than an open flame. In case of an emergency, have all exitways and doors cleared.

Above all, make sure smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are up to date, working properly and stocked with charged batteries.

When we’re in a house that’s all sealed up for the winter we have to make sure the air is safe for everyone inside the house,” Scherer said. Carbon monoxide detectors are especially important to have updated in this sense, he said, to make sure air quality is safe for everyone in a house which is closed up for the winter. 

While everyone is attempting to thaw out during this especially chilly time of year, it is especially important for homeowners and renters to be aware of fire safety while heating their homes and apartments. Keep these tips from Lieutenant Tom Basher (Ithaca Fire Department) and Lieutenant Dan Scherer (Trumansburg Fire Department) in mind while staying warm!

Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

Alyvia Covert

Alyvia is a Crime Reporter with The Ithaca Voice. She graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in Journalism and Photography.