Play it safe this winter by taking extra care before lighting a blaze in the fireplace or switching on a heater to keep the chill at bay.

Theo Layne, Goodwood fire station commander and media liaison officer for the City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Services, said informal settlements were especially vulnerable to structural fires.

“The materials they are made from and the distance between each structure affects the rate at which fires spread. It is essential that the roadways around the structures are kept clear of obstructions to allow emergency vehicles to move around.”

The managing director of MUA Insurance Acceptances, Christelle Fourie, said many consumers made the mistake of thinking that a fire in their home is less likely to happen at this time of year because of the cold, wet weather.

“However, the reality is that fire-related insurance claims for property often occur during the colder months. It is at this time of year that most people light a fire in their homes for the first time.

“As a result, it’s vital for homeowners who have an open fire place in their homes to ensure they have it regularly checked and the chimney swept, to reduce the possibility of any fire damage occurring,” said Fourie.

She said last year the thatched-roof home of a client in Franschhoek burnt down completely at the start of winter, when a fire was lit in the fireplace for the first time.

The client had been living in the house for 15 years and had taken the precaution of installing a sprinkler system in the thatched roof.

However, results from the forensic scientist revealed that a structural wooden pole in the roof had been smouldering for a year or more. There was no oxygen, which had prevented a fire from occurring, but once oxygen did get through, it was partly a case of internal combustion.

Fortunately for the client, he happened to be awake in the early hours of the morning and was able to raise the alarm. By the time he had reached the bedroom door to wake his wife, there was a mini-explosion and a ball of flames started rolling round the ceiling.

Luckily, both he and his wife escaped unscathed but – as is often the case with thatched-roof houses – there was little that could be done to save the home, and everything from the bricks to the granite worktops turned to ash. The forensic report found the temperature had reached as high as 1 000ºC.

Although the client had locked up all the family’s important documents such as ID books, marriage certificates and credit cards in a safe, when the fire was extinguished all its contents had been burnt.

After his experience, the client advised other consumers: “If you go to the trouble of backing up your photographs on to a memory stick or making copies of your ID, passports and marriage certificates, then put them in a safety deposit box at the bank. Don’t back things up and then leave the back-up in the house, because if you do have a fire, your back-ups will also be destroyed.”

Helen Szemerei, chief executive of IntegriSure, said: “Fires also result from poor electrical work in homes and it is critical to have the electrical work in old homes inspected from time to time.

“When building a new home or having alterations done, be sure to use qualified electricians who can provide evidence of their qualifications.

“Often, heaters also pose a danger and sadly, in some cases, it is pure negligence that leads to fires, such as falling asleep close to a heating device with the blanket covering your legs catching fire. This is often reported in old-age homes,” said Szemerei.

She also advised consumers to be aware of the dangers posed by items such as plug-in air fresheners that can cause short circuits. “Earlier this year a home was burnt down with everything in it as a result of such a device. Gas bottles stored in and around homes, gas appliances that are incorrectly installed, poorly maintained or not used properly, also pose a fire threat,” she warned.

Meanwhile, Fourie provided the following advice on fire safety:

l In the event of a fire, always put personal safety first and have an escape strategy. Household items can be replaced but lives cannot.

l Teach your children the importance of fire safety.

l Homes should be properly ventilated and have at least one window open.

l Take care when lighting candles and keep them in a safe place and away from children.

l If you live in a high fire risk area such as an informal settlement, keep important documents or back-up copies at a different address as they are hard to replace. – Cape Argus

By: Joseph Booysen

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