Vacuum cleaners, portable heaters and fireplace ashes are all culprits in house fires, which are more common in the foothills as the temperatures drop.

Unlike summer wildfires capable of destroying hundreds or thousands of acres, winter fires can often be contained because of wet, cold weather.

But they often happen indoors. One Hathaway Pines resident lost his home to a fire early this fall after improperly disposing of fireplace ashes.

Battalion Chief Richard Imlach of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection estimated 60 percent of up to 70 house fires each year in Calaveras or Tuolumne counties happen during the winter.

"When people clear out a fireplace and I'd include barbecues too they think the ashes are out if they don't see any smoke or if they don't feel direct heat," Imlach said. "But ashes can stay hot inside of a container for days."

There is a proper way to dispose of ashes as well as several other precautions people can take to protect their houses from catastrophic blazes:


Fireplace ash, disposed of improperly, is a classic cause of winter house fires.

Consider the house in Hathaway Pines that burned to the ground earlier this fall.

Ebbetts Pass Fire District Chief Warren Wilkes said the fire started after the homeowner loaded his hot ashes into a "combustible container," which he then set on his wooden deck. A combustible container would be anything flammable, such as a cardboard box or garbage bag.

First, Wilkes said, the man should have used a metal bucket to store the ashes. Second, he should have placed the bucket on his driveway or on the sidewalk not on wood.

And third, the man should have poured water into the bucket and stirred it. The end product should look like mud. Failure to stir the ashes might leave ashes smoldering at the bottom of the bucket.

"The ashes might feel cold at the top, but down below they generate heat and warm up again," Wilkes said.