Electricity Blamed for Many House Fires in Fairfax County

Safety precautions can be taken before tragedy strikes.

In recent months, a series of house fires occurred in Fairfax County, with the cause being labeled as an “electrical event,” reminding homeowners that the home electrical system is nothing to mess with. Many times, the fires started from appliances, plugs or improper extension cord use. While these fires did not result in any fatalities, they did lead to thousands of dollars of damage to residences.

In November, a fire started at a house in the 2800 block of Memorial Street in the Groveton area, and the cause was an “electrical event,” said the information released by the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. Two occupants were displaced because of the fire. Red Cross assistance was offered but declined. Damages because of the fire were approximately $25,000.

The following month, there was another electrical event at a business in the 500 block of Mill Street NE Vienna. There were no injuries, but damages as a result of the fire were approximately $11,000.

A kitchen fire in Falls Church also in December resulted in approximately $95,000 worth of damages.

A CHRISTMAS DAY FIRE in the 5000 block of Oakcrest Drive in the Fairfax section of Fairfax County was caused by an electrical malfunction that displaced the five occupants and caused approximately $55,000 in damages.

A fire in the 4500 block of Banff Street in the Wakefield area of Fairfax County was traced back to an electrical event in a basement kitchen. Three occupants were displaced and damages of approximately $93,750.

A Springfield fire in the 8900 block of Applecross Lane on New Year’s Day where the cause of the fire was an electrical event involving wire. The fire displaced two occupants and caused approximately $93,750 in damages.

A fire caused by an electrical short in a house in the 2500 block of Byrd Lane in Fairhaven displaced eight occupants and caused approximately $37,500 of damages.

On March 2, a fire in a house under construction in the 800 block of Dolley Madison Boulevard in McLean was caused by the wiring to the air handler. That fire displaced seven occupants and caused approximately $3,523,850 of damages.

Electrically caused fires are on the rise, said Brett Brenner, president of the Electrical Safety Foundation International, based in Arlington. “Home fires are more deadly and costly than ever,” said Brenner. “While the number of total fires and fire injuries are decreasing, property damage and fire deaths are on the rise. Overloaded electrical circuits are a major cause of these fires,” he said.

According to ESFI, home electrical fires account for an estimated 42,210 fires each year nationwide, nearly 500 deaths, 1,370 injuries, and $1.4 billion in property damage. There is the occurrence of the overloaded plug, exemplified in pictures with multi-plug outlets being expanded with plug expanders and extension cords, but that’s not the only cause. Old appliances and worn wires can also be problems.

Brenner recommends homeowners get arc-fault circuit interrupters, which could prevent up to half of the fires in homes. “These devices detect when there are disturbances and issues within a home’s wiring and immediately shut off power which can prevent electrical fires,” Brenner said.

SIGNS that a system is overloaded include dim and flickering lights, unusual sizzling and buzzing sounds from receptacles, and circuit breakers that trip repeatedly. If homeowners are encountering any of these warning signs, or would like to have arc-fault circuit interrupters installed, contact a qualified electrician immediately, Brenner said.

The arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) and tamper resistant receptacles (TRRs) are new technologies that would help prevent a tragedy before it occurs. These devices have proven so effective that the 2008 National Electrical Code (NEC) significantly increased requirements for AFCI and TRR protection in all new homes.

Other Causes

Although electrical malfunctions can be one cause of fires, “it doesn’t necessarily mean faulty wiring,” said Ashley Hildebrandt, Public Information Officer for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. “Improperly discarded smoking materials is more common,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of property damage from that.” If there’s a fireplace in the house, the homeowner must properly dispose the ashes, and “we encourage people to get the fireplace and chimney inspected,” Hildebrandt said.

Helpful Tips for Homeowners, courtesy of ESFI

Roughly 3,300 home fires originate in extension cords each year, killing 50 people and injuring 270 more. Extension cords can overheat and cause fires when used improperly, so keep these important tips in mind to protect your home and workplace.

Don’t attempt to plug extension cords into one another

Make sure extension cords are properly rated for their intended use, indoor or outdoor, and meet or exceed the power needs of the device being used

Keep all outdoor extension cords clear of snow and standing water

Do NOT overload extension cords

A heavy reliance on extension cords is an indication that you have too few outlets to address your needs. Have additional outlets installed where you need them

Inspect cords for damage before use. Check for cracked or frayed sockets, loose or bare wires, and loose connections

Do NOT nail or staple extension cords to walls or baseboards

Do NOT run extension cords through walls, doorways, ceilings, or floors. If a cord is covered, heat cannot escape, which may result in a fire hazard

Never use three-prong plugs with outlets that only have two slots. Never cut off the ground pin to force a fit, which could lead to electric shock

Buy only cords that have been approved by an independent testing laboratory

Do NOT substitute extension cords for permanent wiring

Do NOT use an extension cord or power strip with heaters or fans, which could cause cords to overheat and result in a fire

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