4 June 2023

WATCH: What can happen when you leave a towel on top of a heater? A lot of fire, very quickly ...

| James Coleman
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ACT Fire & Rescue simulation

A home fire demonstration underway at the ESA training centre in Hume. Photo: James Coleman.

Winter is officially here, and it comes with a warning from Canberra’s emergency services.

ACT Fire & Rescue (ACTF&R) kicked off its annual home fire safety campaign on 1 June, urging the community to ensure they’re “fire safe”.

“Canberrans know all too well how cold it can get in the capital during the winter months,” ACTF&R Commander of Risk and Planning Chris White said.

“As the community reaches for their electric blankets and heating devices, we are reminding them to be safe and not sorry this winter. Unfortunately, we see the devastating effects that can occur when these devices go wrong – they can not only destroy your homes but they can put your family and loved ones at risk.”

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To demonstrate just how quickly a spark can turn a home into cinders, a mock living room was set up in a shipping container at the Emergency Services Agency (ESA) training centre in Hume.

“We’re here today to see a demonstration highlighting some of the things that can go wrong,” Commander White said.

“In the scenario, someone has draped a towel over a heater. We’re going to show what can happen if that towel ignites and how quickly that fire can spread to the furnishings in the rest of the room.”

A firefighter stepped forward and – using a flamethrower – set the towel alight. Within seconds, the fire had spread to the nearby curtains, turning them into a burning heap on the floor. Searing flames were soon licking up the couch and thick smoke was billowing out.

In 2022, ACTF&R attended 114 structure fires such as this, and 73 of these were contained to the room of origin. Commander White doesn’t expect this year to look much different.

“Every winter, we do tend to see an increased number of fires, and we don’t have any information that this winter is going to be different from any other in Canberra,” he said.

“We go to houses and apartments all the time and unfortunately, we do see homes that don’t have working smoke alarms, and fires caused by failed electrical appliances and overloaded power points and people not paying attention while they’re cooking.”

Another increasingly common problem is lithium-ion batteries.

“So a message we would like to get out is that you should always use the appropriate charger for your device,” Commander White said.

“And don’t charge your device, or any battery device, if it’s been overheated, damaged or exposed to water.”

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Key to the campaign is encouraging Canberrans to have a home fire escape plan down pat, so that if there is ever a problem, everyone in the household knows exactly what to do.

“Know how you’re going to get out of the house, where you’re going to meet your family, your loved ones, your children, once you’re out of the house. And it is also a good idea to have all your important documents and keepsakes in one place where you can access them quickly.”

As for those fires that are meant to be burning, in wood heaters and fire pits across Canberra, the Government is urging the community to “burn better this winter” in an effort to keep air pollution levels down.

Techniques include storing wood in a well-ventilated, covered space so it remains dry, always lighting the fire with air-flow controls fully open, positioning wood with enough space to allow good airflow, never overfilling, and avoiding letting the fire smoulder overnight.

“All Canberrans should be able to breathe freely,” ACT Minister for the Environment Rebecca Vassarotti said.

“Throughout most of the year, we have excellent air quality here in the ACT. This does not excuse us from needing to address the challenges that higher levels of air pollution during winter pose for some members of our community.”

Minister Vassarotti also urged Canberrans to make their next choice electric.

“By embracing energy-efficient electric appliances, Canberrans benefit from cost savings while also contributing to a sustainable future,” she said.

A range of rebates and incentives is available in the ACT to help home owners transition from wood heaters and old gas appliances to electric.

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