preventing house firesThis past Summer, our friends’ beautiful 100-year old home was hit by lightning and caught on fire. The house was a total loss and it will take them two years to rebuild.

While lightning strikes can set a house on fire, more than a quarter of all house fires happen in the winter. According to Chris Nixon, Travelers Insurance Vice President of Property Claims, that’s because when the weather gets cold, most Americans turn on their heating systems – which don’t always work properly.

If you want to prevent house fires, there are some easy things you can do, beyond not falling asleep with a lit cigarette in your mouth. What follows are excerpts from a conversation we had with Nixon recently.

According to your data, what are some of the leading causes of home fires?

Chris: The leading causes of home fires are heating system related; furnaces, space heaters, pellet stoves, various heating appliances. When these appliances aren’t maintained, they fail.

When Travelers analyzed its homeowner insurance claims over the past several years, they found nearly a quarter of all home fires occurred during December and January. Why is that?

Chris: It correlates with heating. In December and January we see a spike in usage, so the most stress on heating systems occurs in those months. When the cold weather spreads to places that don’t generally see freezing temperatures, people turn to things like space heaters to warm up their homes. These short-term solutions can cause fires if they’re not used properly. We generally see the same pattern year-over-year of home fire claims increasing in these months.

By the way, this is based on Travelers data. We aren’t speaking for the entire industry.

How can homeowners prevent home fires?

Chris: You’ve got to regularly maintain of all of your heating systems. And follow the directions so that you use them correctly. It sounds simple but it’s important and not everyone does it.

For example, don’t use space heaters near curtains. Don’t burn paper or other things in a fireplace built for burning wood.

Be vigilant on home maintenance. When people aren’t vigilant about maintenance bad things happen. Watch the usage of candles – make sure you never leave a room with candles burning. Preventative maintenance goes a long way toward keeping your family safe.

Also, remember that any heating device that burns fuel can cause carbon monoxide, so make sure you have a carbon monoxide detector in your home.

Winter weather creates other issue beyond house fires. Homeowners should be sure to check that their attics and pipes are sufficiently insulated. Poorly insulated pipes can freeze and burst, causing damage.

Poorly insulated attics can also cause ice dams on the roof. Warm air rises though the insufficiently insulated attic, melting the snow which re-freezes on the roof and gutters. Water can’t drain off the roof, and this ice and water can get under the shingles, seep down the walls and into the attic and house.

It’s also important to keep the gutters clear so water can drain off the roof properly. Any backup can get under the shingles; it might not even damage the shingles or be visible – the shingles can re-adhere after the water is already under them and in the house.

During power outages, like the ones we saw during this year’s early East Coast snowstorm, make sure any generators are vented to the outside. If you’re using a space heater, follow the directions. If you’re using candles for light, make sure to be careful and safe.

If a homeowner is unfortunate enough to be the victim of a home fire, what steps should they take?

Chris: Assuming the homeowners have called 911 and the fire department has responded, they should call their insurance agent from the scene of the fire. Travelers has the ability to get people into temporary housing immediately and can take calls 24/7. After that, we’ll help with the adjustment process. But the first step is calling 911 and getting everyone out of the house safely.