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Officials urge fire safety precautions

After a string of house fires broke out in the four-countyregion of the Mid-South Mississippi Service Delivery Area afterThanksgiving, the American Red Cross is reminding people to guardthemselves against the possibility of fires during the Christmasholidays.

Janice Vannatta, executive director for Hattiesburg’s SouthCentral Mississippi Chapter of the American Red Cross – of whichthe local service area is a part – said her organization dispensesmore assistance for fire victims around Christmas than any othertime of the year.

“When the cold weather starts coming in, particularly during theholiday season, we see lots of fires,” she said. “People startlooking for alternate heating sources for their homes, and wecaution them to be very careful with space heaters, fire places andcandles.”

Robin Mays, community programs director for the Hattiesburgchapter, said two fires in Pike County and one in Lincoln Countybroke out immediately after Thanksgiving, prompting her to issue alist of safety tips to the public. House fires are the most commonemergency the Red Cross responds to, she said.

In the release, Mays advised the following:

*Keep flammable items at least 3 feet away from anything thatgets hot – this includes the stove, space heaters and candles.

*Never dry clothes or cook when you’re not home.

*Never overload electrical outlets (especially Christmaslights).

*Christmas lights should be grounded.

*Remember to watch small children around an open flame, spaceheaters and the stove.

*Keep a fire extinguisher nearby.

*Have an emergency plan.

Brookhaven Fire Chief Bob Watts gave much the same advice,pointing out that the majority of house fires begin in thekitchen.

“Around the holiday season, you’re going to have probably a lotof people in your house, and you may even let the kids get involvedin cooking,” he predicted. “You’ve got to be careful – it’s easy toget distracted with a house full of company.”

Watts said people should tune out distractions and devote theirfull attention when cooking, and make sure that children who areallowed to assist with holiday cooking remain supervised.

Outside of the kitchen, Watts said a leading cause of housefires during the cold parts of the year is space heaters.

“They’re so portable, and people tend to set them too close tosomething or knock a little piece of clothing onto them,” he said.”You have to be careful where you put ’em.”

Other than careful placement of space heaters, Watts alsoadvocated careful purchasing. He said people should make sure thatUnderwriters Laboratories or a similar, reliable testing companyapproves whatever brand of space heater they purchase.

“There is stuff on the market that’s not safe to start with,” hesaid.

Similarly, Watts advised people not overload electrical outletswith multiple extension cords, power strips and adapters. He saidoverloading outlets with too many appliances is a common problemand a common cause of house fires.

Anyone who has a question about their electrical equipment orarrangements may call the Brookhaven Fire Department for advice,Watts said.

“If we can’t answer the phone, we can always ride over and lookat the situation and give you an opinion on whether we think it’ssafe or not,” he said.