Police & Fire

South Orange Fire Chief Warns About Dangers of Winter Weather

South Orange Fire Chief John Shoemaker. Credits: Amy Kiste Nyberg

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – With the village in the grip of winter, residents should be alert to the risks of a house fire, says Fire Chief John Shoemaker.

He warned that cold weather always brings an increase in fires and it is important for residents to take precautions to protect their homes.

“Everybody has some sort of heater that they use during the winter,” Shoemaker said. “And whether it be electric, oil or gas fed, they can all start a fire.

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“The most important thing,” he continued “is that your heating plan should be serviced yearly by a competent serviceman to certify that it’s in working order.”

In most cases, he said, a blaze can be prevented by using common sense to avoid dangerous situations.

“Things like your stove don’t need to be inspected, but you still need to use them with care,” Shoemaker said.  “If you need to use a timer to make sure you’re paying attention to your food, that’s a really good idea. And be careful where you store things. I’ve seen people leave cardboard boxes and milk carton right above the stove. Those things can ignite and start a fire, which jumps to the curtain or cabinets.”

He also recommends making sure that electrical cords are not worn out or cheaply made.

“Don’t use an electric cord from the 99-cent store,” he said. “They aren’t good quality, and if you’re using something that takes up a lot of electricity … that plastic cord can heat up to the point that it ignites.”

Another thing to keep in mind is that people tend to put themselves at greater risk during the holiday season, according to Shoemaker.

“Obviously people are smoking and drinking more during the holidays,” he said. “And those two things don’t mix. If you have a few drinks and fall asleep with a cigarette in your hand, it’s not too hard to drop it. No matter where it lands, it’s probably going to be on something that can catch fire. Some people also light a lot of candles that can easily be knocked over.”

Homeowners are not the only ones at risk in a house fire. Firefighters face added difficulties when working in the cold.

“Fighting a fire in the cold is always more difficult because we have to deal with winter weather elements,” Shoemaker noted.  “Sometimes when the streets are cleared, they miss a fire hydrant and we can’t use it. And sometimes the hydrants even freeze. Each engine carries 500 gallons of water, but that doesn’t go a very long way when you have an entire building on fire.

“We also have to worry about ice,” he continued. “When we put a ladder up and we’re spraying all this water, it can freeze and the ladder becomes very slippery. We also have to deal with icy rooftops that are dangerous to our guys on the roof trying to let smoke out from the top.”

Shoemaker said this is why it is important for residents to be prepared for a fire before it begins.

“Fighting a fire in the winter is always more difficult and labor-intensive,” Shoemaker said. “And a fire always has a head start on us before we’re even called. That’s why everyone should be prepared. Every house should have a 10-pound ABC fire extinguisher in case of a contained fire that can be put out in 30 seconds. That’s bigger than a little kitchen extinguisher, but it can put out any type of fire if it’s very small and controlled.”

The reporter is a student participating in hyperlocal journalism partnership between The Alternative Press and Seton Hall University's Department of Communication & The Arts.

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