Central Indiana fire departments urge common sense with space heaters

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The overnight temperature in Indianapolis is expected to dip to eight degrees. 

If that has you thinking about turning on one of those little space heaters, consider this. The federal government blames electric and other space heaters for starting thousands of fires and killing hundreds of people every year.

Furnaces are working overtime and everyone is feeling the cold. Space heaters are coming off store shelves and out of closets, and firefighters see a formula for disaster.

Wayne Township Fire Department Division Chief Mike Pruitt has fought fires for 27 years.

"We are going to go to work, because people are irresponsible with how they use their space heaters," he said.

The federal government estimates space heaters start 25,000 fires a year, claim more than 300 lives and cause thousands of injuries. Pruitt says people frequently ignore the manufacturers' warnings.

Their biggest mistake? "They put them to close to a blanket, a bed, a curtain, even a wall or furniture."

Warnings printed on the boxes and instructions say to keep space heaters at least three feet away from anything flammable. Be careful about using an extension cord. A lightweight cord could overheat and catch fire.

Pruitt recommends against using extension cords of any kind and looking for heaters with extra safety features. He demonstrated one that sounds and alarm and shuts itself off when it's tipped over.

Electric heaters use a lot of power. When fuses or circuit breakers trip off, Hardware Store Owner Pat Sullivan has seen customers who "try to put in a bigger circuit breaker or bigger fuse. People don't realize - yeah, you solve the problem but you create a dangerous situation."

There are additional warnings for kerosene heaters. They burn kerosene, nothing else.

Pruitt remembers rushing to one home fire and finding a man on the front yard with badly burned hands.

"He used a kerosene heater and tried to use diesel fuel while it was still hot and it lit up on him, and severely injured him," Pruitt explained.

Here's a few other things we learned:

Pick a heater that fits the room. Don't get something so big that's impossible to keep it three feet away from everything.

You might question the three-feet rule. After all, many heaters don't feel hot to the touch. However, prolonged exposure to heat can cause fabric, paper and other materials to dry out, deteriorate and catch fire.

It's simple advice. Read and heed the warnings. Don't play with fire.

Space heater buying guide and maintenance