Take steps to save your home and your life

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As the leaves change over to their brilliant hues and the air gets a little crisper, thoughts sometimes drift to the coming days of festive holiday meals and cozy nights by the fireplace. But those Norman Rockwell moments can turn tragic, even deadly, if proper care is not taken.

October is Fire Prevention Month in the United States, and here in the Green Mountain State, Gov. Phil Scott has proclaimed Oct. 8-14 to be Fire Prevention Week in Vermont.

"Vermont is committed to ensuring the safety and security of all those who live in and visit our state," Scott said in a statement. "We all play a role in fire safety, and this week is about increasing awareness across Vermont so we all understand how we can help prevent fires."

The timing of both the national and statewide campaigns is apropos as we head into the most dangerous season of the year for home fires. The two leading causes of home fires in the United States are cooking and heating equipment, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

During the five-year period of 2010-2014, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 166,100 home cooking fires per year. These fires resulted in 480 civilian deaths, 5,540 reported injuries and $1.1 billion in direct property damage per year. Overall, cooking equipment was involved in almost half (46 percent) of reported home fires and home fire injuries (44 percent) and one in five home fire deaths (19 percent).

As for heating equipment, fixed and portable space heaters, including wood stoves, are involved in about 74 percent of fire-related deaths.

The NFPA notes that over the last 15 years the total number of fires that local municipal fire departments reported continues to be on a downward trend, declining 23 percent in 2016. Over this same period, however, the number of structure fires has remained relatively constant; a total of 475,500 structure fires were reported in the U.S. in 2016, resulting in 2,950 civilian deaths.

Here are some other grim statistics from the NFPA: About 81 percent of all fire deaths occur in home fires, and in communities with less than 5,000 population, the frequency of fires is higher and the rate of civilian fire deaths is significantly worse than in larger communities.

All of these facts and statistics point to a critical need for fire prevention awareness here in Vermont.

For example, now would be a good time to check those fireplaces and wood stoves for any blockages or creosote buildup.

If a fire does break out in your home, basic safety tips followed in advance will increase your chances of survival. That means installing smoke alarms on every level of your home, inside bedrooms and outside sleeping areas. Test them once a month and replace the batteries at least twice a year - when the time changes to and from daylight savings, which is coming up on Nov. 5.

When you do test the smoke alarm, you can hear for yourself how loud it is. That blaring sound will surely wake the deepest of sleepers, but upon waking there is bound to be a moment of confusion as to what is happening and what to do next, especially if there are multiple people living in the home. But during a fire, one cannot afford to waste precious moments. You may have as little as two minutes to escape the deadly effects of smoke inhalation.

This year's Fire Prevention Week campaign for Vermont is, "Every Second Counts: Plan 2 Ways Out." The message, of course, is that a fire escape plan that has been practiced regularly can save lives.

For more safety information, visit the Division of Fire Safety's webpage at www.firesafety.vermont.gov.

On a final note, we would echo Gov. Scott's expression of gratitude to "all of our first responders who work to protect us, our homes, businesses and infrastructure."

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