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An ounce of fire prevention keeps loved ones safe

After a long, dry summer throughout most of the state, fire danger in all but 11 counties remains moderate to high. Lake and Cook counties, with the northern halves of St Louis and Koochiching counties, are among the few areas where fire danger has been downgraded to low.

However, September is Fire Prevention Awareness Month and, with hunting and heating seasons close at hand, Northland residents can take precautions to ensure that time spent indoors is safer from the threat of fire.

Fire Prevention Awareness Month demonstrations last week in Finland showed how quickly a structure can go from a small, localized flame to a fully engulfed inferno.

"Fire is a dangerous animal," said Jim Sinderman of Finland Fire Rescue.

A fire was set in a small mock-up of a house with firewood used to simulate furniture and contents inside. As it burned, Sinderman described the fire's movement: "It starts at the bottom, climbs the walls and travels across the ceiling. Once it's under the roof with open space, it'll burn until we get there."

In rural areas where crews may have to travel some distance to reach a home, a few minutes can make a big difference in the damage a fire can do.

Fire statistics from 98 percent of the state's fire departments indicate that the top three causes of fire are cooking, open flame and heating, according to the annual report of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Fire Marshal Division. Arson was a close fourth.

"Every year, cooking leads the pack by starting 50 percent of fires. Two simple behavior changes would solve the problem," the DPS said in its press release entitled "Top Five Reasons Minnesotans aren't Safe at Home."

First, it advises residents to stay in the kitchen when foods are being cooked. Second, cover grease fires with the lid of a pot and remove it from its heat source.

As open flames are the second most frequent cause of house fires, the DPS recommends never leaving a candle unattended. It also suggests switching to flameless candles.

"It's easy to keep a lid handy when you're cooking or ask someone to watch the stove when you leave the kitchen," said state Fire Marshal Jerry Rosendahl. "It's not difficult to pick up some battery-operated candles for those holiday decorations. ... What's difficult is watching your home burn and discovering you could have prevented it."

Firefighters in Two Harbors have been busy spreading the word about fire prevention in classrooms and the community. They had a fire prevention day event with demonstrations, and each year they talk to students at Minnehaha Elementary School about fire safety, said Fire Chief Mark Schlangen.

Fire prevention includes "maintenance of all areas of the home, including chimneys and boilers, and being on the lookout for things like portable heaters too close to combustibles -- make sure you're looking at the house through that filter," said Schlangen.

A conversation at last week's fire prevention awareness event in Finland turned to home heating as a major cause of fire in that area.

"I would say that the No. 1 cause of house fire is wood stoves," said Mark Riebe of Finland Fire Rescue. "People get used to them being there and think, 'Nothing's happened so far, and I've used a wood stove for years.' I guess people can get a little complacent about it."

There were 249 fire place or chimney fires statewide in 2011, the DPS reported.

Both Reibe and Schalngen had similar advice for homeowners with fireplaces and wood stoves: Make sure smoke detectors are in working order and have new batteries each year.

"Smoke detectors save lives. They should be on every level and outside each bedroom," Schlangen said.

Riebe emphasized the importance of having functioning carbon monoxide detectors, too.

To help residents recognize the outdoor hazards they may not recognize as fire risks, the DNR offers Fire Wise assessments.

Briefly, the Fire Wise evaluator walks around the exterior of a house and identifies what's there that could feed a fire, said Riebe, who performs the assessments. The homeowner receives a list of suggestions for reducing fire danger on their property.

In Lake County, the tax rolls are used to generate a list of property owners to whom cards are sent. The cards describe the free service and interested residents return the card by mail to have the evaluation performed. This year, between 500 and 800 people have returned their cards, said Riebe.

Last year, with 98 percent of departments reporting, Minnesota firefighters responded to 14,815 fires statewide. Financial losses averaged $289 per minute or $416,376 per day, according to the DPS.

More tragically, however, there were 56 fire deaths -- a 44 percent increase over 2010. These losses are the reason for the efforts of fire departments during these annual awareness campaigns.

"If we can prevent a fire from happening, that's really the goal of Fire Prevention Week," Schlangen said.