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When the temperature drops, fire danger increases around our homes as we pull out our old electric blankets, dust off long-dormant portable heaters, and start using the fireplace again.
Numerous factors can potentially add to the risk of an accidental house fire in winter, so you need to understand the hazards.
In almost all cases, ‘accidental’ house fires are completely preventable, just by taking a little bit of extra care and being more aware of the possible dangers. Below are some essential tips to help improve fire safety at your place this winter.
Smoke alarms are crucial when it comes to fire safety at home.
Depending on your state or local authority, there will be specific standards and requirements you will have to meet when installing or testing your smoke alarm/s, especially with renovations or new buildings.
It’s important to test them once a month and change the batteries once a year.
If a smoke alarm goes off while you’re cooking, this is a good thing – it means your alarm is working.
If it happens too often, you should think about investing in some sort of kitchen vent to cut down on smoke.
Reducing your heat levels slightly, using less oil while cooking and covering your pots and frying pans will help, too.
Never temporarily disconnect the battery from the smoke alarm to stop the noise.
It’s safer and more practical to change your cooking habits rather than disconnecting your smoke alarm
To reduce your risk, don’t get distracted and leave cooking unattended, and keep all those oven mitts and tea towels away from your cooking surfaces.
Like everything else in the house, smoke alarms can accumulate dust, so give them a vacuum (with the appropriate attachment) now and then.
Extinguishers and fire blankets
Every home should have a fire extinguisher and fire blanket near the kitchen exit to prevent the spread of any cooking fires.
Extinguishers are also a good idea for your BBQ area.
Fire extinguisher placement will depend on the size and configuration of your home and the type and location of your electric and gas appliances.
Your local Fire Service can offer advice on how many extinguishers you need and where to put them.
Many people have never had the experience of picking up a fire extinguisher and using it, so it’s a good idea to get training by a registered training authority.
Everyone in your home should know where each fire extinguisher is located and how to use it. While you’re trying to put the fire out, a second person (if available) can be ringing the fire department.
Only use an extinguisher when it’s safe to do so. If the fire seems too big or you have safety concerns, get yourself and everyone out!
For a small kitchen grease fire, a fire blanket can be incredibly useful (and less messy than an extinguisher). It also works well if someone’s clothing catches fire. Always keep one within convenient reach of your cooking area.
The most common causes of house fires in Australia are:
- Flammable items being left too close to heaters (especially bedding, curtains and drying clothing)
- Unattended cooking
- Open fires
- Careless smoking
- Clothes dryers
- Electric blankets 
The lint that accumulates in your clothes dryer filter is highly flammable and can cause the dryer to overheat and catch fire.
Always clean the lint filter after each load and wait until the dryer has cooled down completely before removing the clothes.
Old, dusty heaters that have been locked away for months pose a real risk if they’re not cleaned properly before use. If there’s enough of it, all that accumulated dust can be a flammable hazard and may ignite once the heater warms up.
No matter what type of heater you have, it can build up a residue of dust so make sure you give it a good clean – and continue to dust it regularly (when it’s turned off and disconnected) throughout the winter months of maximum use. If your home has a ducted heating system, get a professional to come and clean it for you.
When it comes to the placement of a heater in your home, use the easy-to-remember ‘metre from the heater’ rule, which means exactly what it says – don’t have anything closer than a metre from your heating appliance.
If you’re using a heater to dry clothing, never put items directly on the surface of the heater; place a drying rack at least a metre away. Don’t leave clothes unattended while drying them next to a heater.
Gas heaters should have a regular maintenance check once a year. If anything out of the ordinary seems to be happening with your gas heater or stove, have it looked at immediately.
Wood heaters and fireplaces can also be a danger. Periodic cleaning of your chimney by a professional is necessary to avoid soot build up. Use a mesh guard in front of your fireplace to protect the room from embers and stray sparks.
Candles provide a warm glow, but the open flame can also ignite anything within reach.
A sturdy candle holder should always be used (the old ‘melted wax on the teacup saucer’ doesn’t really cut it), and candles should never be used around window curtains, Christmas trees or other obviously flammable items.
Place them where they can’t be knocked over by children, pets or inebriated adults, and always put them out before going to sleep.
Ensure that any paper, cardboard or plastic decoration has been removed from the candle prior to use. Candles shouldn’t be left unattended in a room.
Children love candles – they’re the coolest thing about having a power outage! But with children and candles not being a good combination, it goes without saying kids shouldn't be left unsupervised in any room with a candle, and that matches, lighters and candles are kept high and out of reach of smaller children.
Candles shouldn’t be carried around the house and used as a portable light source – get a torch instead.
Never use candles or any other open flame around possible gas leaks.
Fire evacuation plan
A home fire evacuation plan is essential, so you know what to do when your home and family are in danger from a house fire.
Ideally, there should be two ways to escape each room of the house. Yes, home security is important, but make sure you can unlock doors, windows and security grilles quickly when you need to.
Stay down close to the floor (crawl toward the exit if necessary) to avoid smoke and toxic fumes. Feel closed doors to see if they’re hot: if so, don’t open them – exit via a window instead.
Keep door and window keys where everyone in the house can reach them. If you have to break a window to get out, start at the top of the window and work downwards. Use a blanket or other padding to protect yourself from sharp glass.
While there may be some inconveniences involved with devising a plan, it’s preferable to have fire safety practices in place and never need them, than to need them and not have them.