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If you use a space heater for warmth, simple steps can help you stay safe

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By Madeline Holcombe, CNN

The nation’s top fire official is calling for all hands on deck to save lives by educating the United States about space heater safety this winter.

New York City experienced one of its worst fires in the history of the city Sunday when a malfunctioning space heater in a bedroom sparked an apartment fire in the Bronx that killed 17 people, including eight children.

While the incident was notably tragic, it was one of many fires attributed to space heaters.

On average, fires caused by portable heaters cause 65 deaths and 150 injuries a year, said Lori Moore-Merrell, administrator of the US Fire Administration. Here are six factors that fire experts say can make all the difference in keeping warm while staying safe with a space heater.

1. Keep it at least 3 feet from anything flammable

The leading cause of space heaters igniting fires is placing them too close to flammable objects, Moore-Merrell said.

It is a heat source so placing a unit near something that will burn — like a couch, curtains, papers — risks fire, she added.

It is also important to keep the space heater on a flat, stable surface, Houston Fire Department spokesperson Martee Boose said.

2. Don’t leave it unattended

It only makes sense that you want the heat going as long as the cold blows, but with space heaters that is a big risk, experts said.

When you can’t pay attention to the space heater — whether you’re sleeping or leaving the room — you need to turn the heater off, Moore-Merrell said.

“That’s not always a pleasant thing to hear, particularly when it’s as cold as it is right now,” Moore-Merrell said. “We could think of it like a candle. You don’t leave a candle burning when you leave the room, and the same thing must apply to our space heaters as well.”

3. Keep out of reach of children and pets

Just as you would not leave a candle within reach of children or curious pets, the same goes for space heaters, Moore-Merrell said.

Boose recommended keeping your heater elevated where children or pets couldn’t accidentally burn themselves.

If you have ever had a cat, you know that there are few places where they can’t get to. In home with feline acrobats, Boose suggested placing a barrier around the heater that can both keep them away and still allow ventilation.

4. Plug it directly into the outlet

Aside from contact with flammable objects, a big risk of fire is using surge protectors with a space heater, Boose said.

“If you’re plugged directly in the wall, you know that it’s rated for the outlet,” Boose said. A surge protector may not be equipped to handle the power needed for the space heater, and can cause a fire if it becomes overwhelmed, Boose said.

5. Make sure to have a working smoke and carbon monoxide alarm

Even if you’re as careful as possible, sometimes things can still go wrong. The first line of defense, Boose said, is maintaining working fire alarms.

It is important to test both fire and carbon monoxide alarms every month to make sure they are working, Boose said. Also check and replace their batteries. Carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless but can be dangerous, meaning it may be hard to tell when it’s harming those in the home.

Carbon monoxide can be a big concern in the winter months. People who don’t have central heating often try to stay warm using their oven, sitting in their running car or bringing their grills in — all of which Boose said you should not do because it’s dangerous.

6. Look out for signs of malfunction

Fortunately, more modern space heaters often have safety functions that cause them to shut down when they aren’t working properly, Moore-Merrell said, but older models don’t work that way.

“We have no way of knowing where those older devices are,” she added.

One big sign to look out for is the color of the flames on gas heaters. A blue flame is normal, but an orange flame means that it’s not working properly and should be turned off immediately, Boose said.

Staying warm through the winter is important for safety as well as comfort, and for some people space heaters may be the best way to do that. Taking precautions and using them properly can add another layer of comfort, knowing that you are being as safe as possible.

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