In deep freeze, Philly fire officials warn, quest for warmth can lead to tragedy

 Philadelphia firefighters work the scene of an overnight blaze in West Philadelphia Monday as icicles hang from where the water from their hoses froze. (Jacqueline Larma/AP Photo)

Philadelphia firefighters work the scene of an overnight blaze in West Philadelphia Monday as icicles hang from where the water from their hoses froze. (Jacqueline Larma/AP Photo)

Temperatures in Philadelphia this winter may be unusually low, but the number of fires in the city has almost doubled in the past week.

At this time last winter, when the average temperature was only 25 degrees, the Philadelphia Fire Department dealt with about five fires per day. This year, they’re battling close to 10 on a daily basis.

“What happens is when it gets this cold, people start using supplemental heating sources,” said Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer. “They use electrical heaters, unconventional means, like a stove or an oven, which they shouldn’t, and it causes fires.”

Sawyer said that it’s often as simple as spilled kerosene and a match, or a poorly placed electric heater near drapes, or even clothing.

“Space heaters need space,” said Sawyer. “They need at least three feet from anything that can burn, including yourself. If you’re cold and you’re wrapped up, you have your extra robe on and you’re trying to stay warm, you sit too close to the heater, and your robe or your pajamas can catch on fire.”

Sawyer cautioned residents to make sure smoke alarms have batteries and that an escape plan has been put into place.

In most cases, the fires have been put out quickly. Last week, however, a 15-minute blaze claimed the life of one victim who spilled kerosene on the carpet, according to the commissioner.

He said that the department has doubled the number of vehicles that respond to fires during this cold spell, to ensure that the flames are extinguished quickly.

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