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As temperatures fall, house fires in Tampa Bay area are on the rise

Hot oil on the stove, ready for fries, blows up and burns down a two-bedroom trailer. Seven people are displaced from apartments after a pile of oil-soaked rags heats up and starts a fire in a laundry basket. A microwave burns up a bed.

Lately, stories such as these have been a lot more common. And the trend is taking its toll on rescue funds.

The number of house fires displacing Tampa Bay area families has nearly tripled during early December, said Janet McGuire, spokeswoman for Florida's west coast region of the American Red Cross.

Cooking, space heaters and electrical problems are the top reasons that fires damage homes, officials say.

"When the weather first turns cold, whether it's here in Florida or anywhere in the country, the number of house fires increases," said Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Bill Wade.

Since Dec. 1, the American Red Cross has helped 70 people in 20 fires in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. That's up from the seven fires involving 26 people during the same time last year.

An annual spike in house fires is always expected. Holidays bring more opportunities for cooking and families trying to stay warm during cold weather. But this season's early onset of cold fronts is straining resources for the American Red Cross.

It costs $100 a day for each person receiving aid. Families receive help with immediate needs, including finding a place to sleep and getting medication that was destroyed in a fire. Those who lose pets in a fire are offered counseling.

The American Red Cross chapter for Tampa Bay counties plans for January and February to be the busy months, McGuire said.

"But Thanksgiving weekend, that's when everything seemed to start breaking loose," McGuire said.

Volunteers respond to up to eight fires each day during the busy start of the year. From Thanksgiving to the end of the year, it's usually one a day. Lately, they're up to two.

Most of these house fires destroy houses or cause extensive damage.

The Red Cross spent a total of $32,683 on aid in December 2009. The organization has spent $12,562 so far this month.

St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Lt. Joel Granata agrees that there has been an early increase in house fires. In any month, he said, much colder weather means more fires.

Granata said he has seen chimneys cause fires. He has seen homes damaged by candles because families are trying to save money and keep the electricity turned off. He has seen foreclosed homes burn up because homeless people spend the night with candles lit in living rooms.

The increase isn't expected to slow down. This week will be another brutally cold one for Tampa Bay.

Hard freezes are expected this morning and Wednesday morning. Most areas in Tampa Bay will reach the 20s or 30s. The lows are expected to drop close to or actually break record temperatures in several areas around west-central Florida.

Ileana Morales can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or imorales@sptimes.com.

>> facts

Safe and warm

The American Red Cross offers some tips for staying warm — and safe:

• Keep flammable materials and potential fuel sources at least 3 feet away from heat sources such as space heaters, fireplaces and stoves.

• Keep space heaters on a hard, level surface instead of rugs or carpets. Keep heaters away from curtains or bedcovers.

• Don't go to sleep or leave the house with a space heater on.

• Install smoke alarms on every floor of a home. Test them each month.

• Never use a stove or an oven to heat a home.

• Make sure heating equipment is clean and working properly before turning it on after it has been off for a long time.

To donate to the local American Red Cross, call (813) 348-4820.

As temperatures fall, house fires in Tampa Bay area are on the rise 12/13/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 14, 2010 1:29am]

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