Christina O'Haver, The Union Democrat

Fire officials encourage Mother Lode residents to exercise caution while heating their homes this winter.

In 2009, heating equipment was involved in an estimated 58,900 reported house fires, resulting in 480 deaths and $1.1 billion in direct property damage across the U.S., according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Stationary and portable space heaters, including wood-burning stoves, accounted for one-third of the reported house fires from 2005 to 2009.

According to Cal Fire, portable electric heaters can cause fires when they come into contact with combustibles such as towels, curtains, bed linens and toys.

The heaters should be kept at least three feet away from such materials and each should have an off-switch that is automatically triggered if the device tips over, Cal Fire said in a statement.

Overloading an outlet where a portable heater is plugged in can also be a fire hazard, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Barry Rudolph said.

He recommended reading the labels on heating devices before putting them to use.

Portable generators, gas- and oil-burning furnaces, charcoal grills and any other household appliance that burns fossil fuels can produce carbon monoxide - a poisonous gas that claims the lives of hundreds of people each year and leaves thousands more ill, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fire officials recommended checking gas appliance lines and vents for obstructions, leaks, wear and damage to prevent carbon monoxide leaks.

Rudolph said carbon monoxide alarms are now required in every household in California.

Cal Fire advised homeowners to install the alarms in central locations outside each sleeping area and on every story. People who have installed the devices should check the batteries, the statement said.

Anyone who may be experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning should open windows, turn off combustion appliances and exit the house as quickly as possible, Cal Fire said.

The most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion, according to the CDC.

People who are sleeping or intoxicated can die from carbon monoxide poisoning before ever experiencing symptoms.

"It sneaks up on you," Rudolph said.

Wood-burning stoves and fireplaces can also be the source of house fires if chimneys are not inspected and cleaned each year by a certified chimney sweeper.

Rudolph said it is also important to burn clean, dry wood to reduce the buildup of creosote - the culprit of many chimney fires.

He also advised homeowners to keep their roofs free of leaves and pine needles, especially during the fall season when trees drop dry leaves and precipitation is inconsistent. A flue fire can toss embers onto leaves and spark a rooftop fire.

Checking the condition of the screen on top of the chimney or stovepipe can help prevent sparks from flying on the roof.

Covering the fireplace opening inside the house with a screen can help keep embers from escaping into the home.

To safely dispose of fireplace ashes, mix them with water in a metal bucket and keep them away from combustibles, Cal Fire said.

Cal Fire also discourages Mother Lode residents from leaving burning candles unattended or in close contact with decorations, curtains, bedding, pets and children.

When burning, candles should sit on a metal surface instead of a cloth or wood surface, Cal Fire said.

Contact Christina O'Haver at or 588-4526.