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Space heaters can be deadly

ALBANY -- When a cold snap hits many residents rely on space heaters. Sometimes the reliance is fatal.

"On average, we have two fire fatalities a year," said Albany Fire Department Chief James Carswell. "At least one (on average) is because of a space heater."

Although there were three fire-related fatalities this year as 2009 counts down to its final two days, none was caused by a space heater, Carswell said. But that doesn't mean the devices should not be treated with care, he added.

The use of space heaters in a manner for which they are not designed leads to fires, Carswell said. Space heaters are meant to warm a certain-sized space. Many times people use the heater to warm a space larger than it was designed for, he said.

"The instructions that come with the heater should tell how large a space they are meant to heat," Carswell said. "Using them to heat larger spaces can lead to fires."

When the temperatures dips, the danger rises. Weather predictions for the Albany area for the next few days are chilly. After rain passes through Thursday, forecasters expect highs in the low to mid-50s and lows in the mid-20s over the New Year's weekend.

"When it gets cold and we have temperatures below the 50s two or three days in a row, people leave them running continuously," Carswell said. "It isn't a good idea to do that."

While the appliance itself might be safe, Carswell said, poor placement of a heater unit can also lead to fires. People should not use extension cords or put the heater within three feet of any flammable objects or material, such as a curtain or bed covering.

There should be at least three feet of clearance around the heater, Carswell said. The heater will dry out anything in the room, lowering the temperature at which the object could burst into flames.

"People should get the right size heater for the space," Carswell said, "and follow the instructions that come with it. It is important to have smoke alarms though the house."

According to the U.S. Fire Administration Web site (usfa.dho.gov), heating is the leading cause of winter fires. The peak month for fires in the home is January, it states.