Every year when the mercury dips, the calls to Gainesville and Hall County fire stations go up.
This year, with more people worried about the cost of heating their homes, the use of alternative heating sources likely is to increase. That could mean more house fires caused by space heaters, fireplace chimneys and nontraditional heating methods such as propane fuel, grills and stoves.
That worries some fire officials.
"Because of the downturn in the economy, I think more people will be using other sources of heat than (they) have in the past," said Gainesville Fire Chief Jon Canada. "I think we’re in for a pretty long winter, as far as fires go."
From late October to early March, fire service officials see an incremental increase in their fire statistics, usually peaking around January. Most notably, of the 13 fire fatalities in the past five years in Gainesville and Hall County, nine occurred between the months of November and March. The last fatal fire in the Gainesville city limits was in February 2004; one person died in a January fire in Hall County.
Already, during an unseasonable mid-November cold snap, fire officials saw their calls to structure fires increase. At least one was the result of a chimney fire.
"We do have a lot more fires caused by heaters and fireplaces" in the colder months, Hall County Fire Marshal Scott Cagle said.
Nationally, the top cause of structure fires is cooking, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Heating and electrical fires are second and third.
But in Hall County, "during the winter months, heating jumps to No. 1," Cagle said.
The leading causes of fatal fires are heating and smoking, according to Lorraine Carli, a spokesperson for the National Fire Protection Association.
This year, the association conducted a survey with the American Red Cross that found 79 percent of Americans were concerned about the cost of heating their homes this winter, with many opting to use an alternative heating source to reduce their bills. More than a third of homeowners with fireplaces surveyed said they never cleaned or inspected their chimneys.
That, along with other risky scenarios, is an invitation for a house fire, Cagle said. He recommends folks have their fireplaces inspected yearly.
Canada notes that most space heater fires occur when combustibles, anything from clothing to furniture fabrics, are too close to the heaters. Space heaters should be at least three feet from any combustibles, and should be shut off while people are sleeping.
Space heaters account for about a third of all heating fires, but about three-quarters of all heating fire deaths, Carli said.
Then there are the unconventional methods of heating homes.
"People do a lot of things you wouldn’t expect them to do when it comes to trying to stay warm," Canada said.
He has seen a house fire that started when someone cranked up an oven, opened the oven door and turned up all the surface burners to get some warmth.
"That is not a safe way to heat," Canada said.
"We’ve had cases where people pulled a propane grill inside and used it as a heater," Cagle said. "You’re basically bringing a pressurized missile inside."
Refilling a kerosene heater while it’s still hot is also a recipe for disaster, Canada said.
Cagle, Canada and their colleagues repeatedly stress that while preventing a fire is vital, protecting yourself once your home is burning is even more important. In most of the fatal fires Cagle’s worked, smoke alarms either weren’t in the home or weren’t working. Most folks still don’t have an escape plan should they wake up with their house in flames.
Canada notes that many times, people will disconnect the batteries from their smoke alarms once the alarms begin "chirping."
"They take it out because it becomes annoying," Canada said. "It becomes annoying because you’re supposed to change the battery."
Both Hall and Gainesville fire departments will supply free smoke alarms.
Escape plans, fire drills with the kids and rope ladders for second-story escapes should all be part of a safe home, officials say.
Fire officials expect their business to pick up in coming months, and hope that no matter how many burning houses they put out, no one gets hurt.
"We need to encourage people that whatever heating source they use, they need to be careful," Canada said.