What Is a Space Heater and How Can It Cause a Fire? 19 Dead in New York Blaze

19 people, including nine children, died after a malfunctioning space heater started a major fire at a high-rise apartment building in the Bronx on Sunday, according to the New York City Fire Department. The blaze was the deadliest in New York City in three decades.

Daniel Nigro, commissioner of the New York City Fire Department, said on Sunday that a total of 63 people were injured in the fire, some of whom were hospitalized in critical condition. Most of the victims suffered from severe smoke inhalation.

What are space heaters?

A space heater is a device used to heat a single, small-to-medium sized area. These devices, especially portable ones, are usually electric, although some stationary space heaters require a burnable fuel, such as natural gas, propane, or wood pellets.

There are several types of electric space heaters, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA,) including ceramic heaters, convection heaters—which sometimes have fans—oil or water-filled radiators and infrared heaters.

NFPA figures show that heating equipment is a leading cause of fire in homes across the United States. Local fire departments responded to an estimated average of 48,530 fires involving heating equipment per year between 2014 and 2018, accounting for 14 percent of all reported home fires in this period.

These fires resulted in around 500 deaths, 1,350 injuries and $1.1 billion in direct property damage. Meanwhile, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that approximately 1,200 fires a year are caused by portable electric space heaters.

Around 81 percent of heating fire deaths involved stationary or portable space heaters, according to NFPA figures.

How can space heaters cause fires?

Electric space heaters can cause fires when they are placed too close to combustible objects, such as furniture, clothing, bedding or mattresses. Most manufacturers warn consumers to keep the heater at least three feet away from all combustibles.

However, a defect in any of the crucial components of the heater, power cord, receptacle or electrical wiring, can also spark a fire. A common problem is when people plug a heater into an electrical extension cord. Manufacturers usually recommend that heaters should always be connected directly into an electrical receptacle.

The NFPA provides guidelines for minimizing fire risk when using electric portable space heaters:

  • Purchase a heater with the seal of a qualified testing laboratory.
  • Keep the heater at least 3 feet (1 meter) away from anything that can burn, including people.
  • Choose a heater with a thermostat and overheat protection.
  • Place the heater on a solid, flat surface.
  • Make sure your heater has an auto shut-off to turn the heater off if it tips over.
  • Keep space heaters out of the way of foot traffic. Never block an exit.
  • Keep children away from the space heater.
  • Plug the heater directly into the wall outlet. Never use an extension cord.
  • Space heaters should be turned off and unplugged when you leave the room or go to bed.
First responders at Bronx fire
Emergency first responders stand at the scene of a fire at a 19-story residential building that started on January 9, 2022 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Scott Heins/Getty Images

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