The emergency call came in around 11 p.m. Nov. 20, reporting a small, one-story home on Vine Drive had caught fire.
Firefighters arrived minutes later, finding heavy fire inside the house and the residents outside. The people had been able to leave the house, but two dogs were not so lucky.
After an investigation, York County Fire & Life Safety officials determined the fire started near the chimney and was heating-related, Fire Chief Stephen Kopczynski said.
Although the Vine Drive fire is just one of dozens that have occurred in the Historic Triangle over the years, the incident serves as a safety warning as colder weather moves in.
While some recent fires have been caused by other variables – like electrical issues or improperly discarded smoking materials – fire officials are sending out advice to help local residents stay safe while heating their homes this winter.
According to James City County Battalion Chief Al Catlett, many fires during the winter and holidays stem from unmaintained heating systems, failing to follow instructions for electric and kerosene heaters and unsafe holiday décor.
“We see a lot of unfortunate combinations of events that can lead to fires,” Catlett said. “Whether it’s space heaters and pets or combustible materials put in the wrong place, people need to be aware of those things.”
Catlett recommends having a professional clean and inspect chimneys and other heating systems, because “a little maintenance goes a long way.”
James City County hasn’t seen any heating-related fires so far this fall, but Catlett said warmer temperatures have kept residents from turning on their heating systems full-time.
But when the time comes to officially turn on the heat, Catlett said some odd smells or puffs of smoke can be normal – but if residents are concerned, the fire department will always take their call.
Holiday cheer – and danger
York County Fire & Life Safety Public Educator Annetta Perry said holidays are also top times of year for house fires.
A common cause of holiday fires is cooking.
“Thanksgiving is the biggest day for fires each year, but Christmas is also right around the corner,” she said.
Besides cooking, decorations should also be placed with fire safety in mind.
Decorations should not block any exits in both homes and places of assembly, including schools, churches and restaurants, Perry said.
Candles – a popular holiday item – should also be used with caution. York County fire officials say candles should be kept far away from flammable items.
Christmas trees need to be kept three feet away from heat sources and watered daily, Perry said. The lights should be turned off every time residents leave the house and also be indoor-specific.
Although York County has seen its share of winter-related fires, including the Nov. 20 fire on Vine Drive, Perry said York County’s incident rates and causes follow national trends.
“What happens nationally happens in most jurisdictions,” she said.
Williamsburg Fire Chief Pat Dent said the city has not seen any house fires that are holiday or heating-related as cold weather has moved in.
The risk of fire is heightened in the colder months, but Dent said one tip matters the most year-round: Make sure you have working smoke detectors.
“Regardless of whether its winter summer or whatever, regardless of the calls we go on, we want to make sure people have working smoke alarms,” Dent said.
The City of Williamsburg will replace smoke detectors for residents if they’re over 10 years old, he added.
“There are a lot of fire safety tips specific to winter, but that’s the biggest tip for any time of year.”