Deadly fire in Perry County renews calls for caution with space heaters

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LIVERPOOL, Pa. - A deadly fire on Wednesday has renewed calls from firefighters for people to take extra care when using a space heater and other alternative sources of heat.

A propane heater that sparked near combustible materials was blamed for the fire on the 600 block of Front Street in Liverpool that killed 84-year-old Ronald Miller, Sr. and his wife Alice, 82 in their home.

But in many fires that involve space heaters, firefighters say the devices should not shoulder all the blame.

"It's also human error that gets it in that position," said Sr. Deputy Chief Mike Souder of the Harrisburg Bureau of Fire. "The space heater did not put itself beside the curtains, the space heater didn't leave itself unattended and [people] have to take some responsibility for that."

A key rule of thumb is to keep the heat source a minimum of three feet away from anything that could be combustible, and failure to do this is one of the main causes of fires involving space heaters.

"It might be direct contact with the heating elements if there is some type of open flame on the heater," said Deputy Chief Brian Widmayer of the Dover Township fire department in York County. "Obviously you have a combustible, you're going to have the open flame come in contact and it's going to catch on fire."

Firefighters recommend not using an extension cord to plug in a space heater, and not to put carpet over the cord, as friction could cause a spark.

They also recommend installing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors to alert you if there's a problem.

"The first thing you want to look at is you want to make sure that your space heater has been tested by the national testing laboratory, so a UL sticker,"  Souder said. "They test them, they make sure they're good to go, and they're good to be sold to the public, and then it really comes down to just reading what the manufacturer has there for you."

Fire departments around the area are on high alert this time of year, and any public education before a fire breaks out can only be a good thing, Widmayer said.

"Actually winter time is the busiest time for structure fires," Widmayer said. "50 percent of those fires in the United States happen during the months of December, January, February and that's generally caused by alternative means of heat."

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