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MUSCATINE — Since October, the Muscatine Fire Department has seen an increase in the number of building fires, including last week's house fire that killed an adult and two children.

The fire is but one of 27 the Muscatine Fire Department has responded to during the past four months. 

The department has some fire prevention reminders for residents.

"One of the big ones is always the smoke detectors," said Muscatine Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief Mike Hartman. "Make sure that the battery is good and make sure the smoke detector is less than 10 years old because if either of those issues exists, it is anywhere from not real likely to almost guaranteed that it will not operate. And right now, that is the device that most people put their lives on."

Hartman said with the variety and prevalence of synthetic materials in homes, fires grow quickly and produce more smoke giving residents less time than even 10 years ago to get out of the building.

"When you look at the damage that we've had since the very end of last year and more so the beginning of this year," he said, "it seems like we've had more damage than we typically do."

He recommends smoke detectors on every level of a home, with extra inside or just outside all bedrooms. If residents cannot afford smoke detectors, Hartman said the department typically has some available at the station. And  if they are running low, they'll find detectors. Residents in need may send an email to mfdsafe@muscatineiowa.gov or send him a message on Facebook.

"With that program," he said, "if you tell us what you have, what your situation is, we'll go out and we'll put them up."

He said fire personnel will also install smoke detectors in homes after a discovery firefighters made a few years ago following a house fire in town. As the department was conducting an investigation to determine if smoke detectors were in the home, he said personnel opened a closet "and there were two or three smoke detectors that the fire department had given those residents, and they just put them in the cabinet and they never got put up."

Smoke detectors should also be installed in living and family rooms, he said, where power strips or surge protectors, when used incorrectly, have led to several recent fires. Power strips plugged into power strips, or chains, he said, take away the safety aspect of those devices. Overloaded outlets and extension cords should also be avoided.

Be careful with extension cords 

"I hate extension cords," he said, "especially the cheap ones. We've had many fires over the years caused by those. It's easy to overheat."

Flickering lights and and a burning smell are signs of an electrical problem. Hartman recommends residents have someone check it out. Electrical fires are a major cause of home fires in the country, according to the National Fire Prevention Association. The second leading cause is heating.

The NFPA reports space heaters are involved in 40 percent of home heating fires that most frequently occur in December through February. With cold temperatures still in the forecast, Hartman said space heaters are approved to use, but need to be used safely. Only UL safety certified units should be used and units must be plugged directly into a wall outlet, not through a power strip or an extension cord. Flammable materials must be kept at least three feet away and units should be turned off and unplugged when unattended.

Be careful cooking, too

The most common cause of home fires, Hartman said, "cooking, cooking, cooking."

"Cooking is historically the No. 1 cause of fires," he said with many times a stove being unattended.

Hartman said one of his pet peeves is items stored on the stove top. He recalled a fire in 1999 in Keokuk that killed three firefighters and three children. He said residents piled stuff on the oven and a fire started after someone bumped the dials, turning the stove top on.

"The only thing you should be putting on your stove top is what you're cooking," he said.

Ovens should not be used for home heating either. A gas oven could lead to a carbon monoxide leak, another danger Hartman said residents should note.

"Anytime you have exhaust of a furnace or water heater — anything that is fuel-fired — if you have build up in the exhaust pipe then that's going to basically push carbon monoxide back into your home," he said.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that can be deadly in large amounts. More than 400 people die each year from CO poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Home exhaust pipes must be cleared of snow and ice, especially high efficiency furnaces, Hartman said.

A state law went into effect last July requiring the installation of carbon monoxide detectors in homes and rental properties with fuel-fired heaters or appliances, fireplaces or attached garages.

Hartman said the fire department isn't going to go door-to-door issuing citations but residents should ensure at least one CO detector is installed in their home with this time of year being the most critical. The department doesn't have a program for helping families in need get CO detectors, but it's something Hartman is seeking funding for.

Of the 27 building fires Muscatine Fire has responded to in the last four months, Hartman said six of them had more than one room on fire, which is higher than average.

He said the department anticipates around 24 building fires per year. The cause of a fire is classified as accidental, natural or incendiary, meaning intentionally set. He said he looks for consistencies based on the cause of a fire, but hasn't seen any patterns to explain an increase in building fires. Last year, Muscatine Fire responded to 42 building fires.

The cause of the Clinton Street fire was undetermined because there were several potentials in the area of the origin. Hartman said the department is still gathering information about the house fire but doesn't see where "we're going to have any big breaks in the case."

He said the community has been supportive of the fire department, recognizing the impact it had on responders.

"We've had people bring in supper and things like that to show their appreciation," he said. "That's nice to see and it does help our people as they process this."

Though Hartman hasn't found a pattern in the cause of recent house fires, he did say electrical fires were happening more frequently, and a few have been started purposefully.

Mostly, he said, "a lot of it has been carelessness."

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