In one 24-hour period in late March, the American Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania responded to twice as many fires than they typically do all year, capping off a brutal and record-breaking winter for the humanitarian organization.
“The primary culprit is the cold weather,” said Dave Schrader, a spokesman for the American Red Cross. “When it gets cold, people look for all kinds of ways to heat their homes and many of those ways are not safe.”
The local Red Cross chapter responds to an average of two to three fires a night each year, but, in less than 20 hours on March 26, the organization assisted at least 23 people displaced by six different fires in Norristown, Royersford, Brookhaven and Philadelphia.
Investigators are still working to determine the cause of the three fires in Philly, as well as the Norristown and Brookhaven blazes. The Limerick Township Fire Marshal has concluded the fire on the 100 block of West Ridge Pike in Royersford was accidental, originating in the building’s utility room and unrelated to any heat issues.
“We have the supplies to accommodate the increase in demand,” Schrader said. “The strain has been on our volunteers and our finances.”
Red Cross staff members and volunteers helped the victims obtain winter clothing, emergency medications, groceries and lodging on Wednesday, just as they did when they responded to a record number of disasters throughout the winter season.
“Every year between November and March and particularly between December and February, we see a significant uptick in fires, but this year has been extraordinary,” Schrader said.
The nonprofit sent teams to help victims with 89 incidents in November, 101 in December and 104 in January, all predominantly fire-related, Schrader said.
“The Red Cross will continue to respond and provide the high quality service the public deserves no matter what, but it just means we need to find the money elsewhere,” Schrader said.
Aside from additional funding, the organization is in need of more volunteers – especially following such a demanding winter, he said.
“Responding to fires in the cold and in the dark of night takes a special kind of person,” Schrader explained. “It’s not for everyone, so those who do respond for us have been called upon a lot. That can take a toll on a person.”
Schrader also advises the public take measures to prevent fires from erupting:
- Limit or eliminate the use of candles.
- Battery operated candles work just as well and are much safer.
- Take the time to learn how to operate space heaters properly.
- Never heat your home with ovens.
- Ensure your home has working smoke detectors. “While they don’t reduce the risk of fire, they do greatly reduce the risk of injury or death from a fire,” he said.
- Have a fire escape plan and practice it with your family, including your pets.
Additional tips on fire safety can be found on the Red Cross website.