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29 November 2022

Firefighters and doctors brace for winter fires as people turn to cheap heating

High energy costs may lead people to turn off the central heating and try riskier methods to warm their homes.

By Katharine Swindells

Staff in fire departments and burns units have revealed to the New Statesman that they are “on tenterhooks” for rising incidences of fires and burns this winter because high energy costs may lead people to try cheaper and riskier methods to heat their homes.

The UK is in the first proper cold spell of winter and the average energy bill has doubled since this time last year. Even with the government’s energy unit price cap in place, many people will feel that using their central heating isn’t feasible.

Every year the London Fire Brigade (LFB) responds to more than 250 fires caused by heating systems and devices, according to data shared with the New Statesman, the majority of which happen in the colder months. Between December 2020 and February 2021, as temperatures in the capital dropped to -4°C, the number of fires caused by heating systems increased by 10 per cent compared with the same period in the winter of 2019-20. There were 15 fires caused by panel heaters, almost quadruple the number of the previous year.

“It’s always a concern every winter, but it’s one that has been looming even more with the cost-of-living crisis,” said Charlie Pugsley, the LFB’s assistant commissioner for fire safety. The main concerns, he said, would be people using cheap portable heaters that are faulty or of poor quality, or using portable heaters too close to bedding or clothing.

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In April an elderly woman in Edgware, north London, died on a cold night after the electric heater she kept on became trapped under her reclining chair. The resultant blaze required around 20 firefighters to be brought under control. In another incident this year a family was burning wood openly in their living room. The fire spread into their home and resulted in serious injuries and damage to the building.

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“We understand that there are some people who may not be able to afford to heat their whole home and who may be making difficult choices,” Pugsley said. “All we can do is give good advice, and hopefully help people make small differences that will keep them safe.”

[See also: The economic case for providing free school meals to more children]

Nicole Lee, burns matron at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, said that the staff on her unit were also preparing for a potential influx of cases. Across the NHS the number of people treated for burns caused by heating devices rises in winter, but the seasonal trend is most noticeable among the elderly. Every October the number of elderly patients treated from heating-related burns jumps by 30-40 per cent compared with the previous month.

“Dare I say this – we’ve had an unusually quiet period since fireworks night, probably because the weather’s been very mild,” Lee said. “But we know when the weather changes, we will see the influx of people. We’re on tenterhooks.”

Lee warned that portable heaters often carry a burn risk when not used properly, particularly among older people who may not have as much sensitivity in their legs and feet. The biggest risk, however, is people using old hot water bottles, which often burst or leak. As people fear the cost of putting their central heating on, Lee is preparing for such cases to rise.

“We fully understand that many people are on the breadline, arguably many of my staff are too,” she said. “We’re doing all we can to get the message out there, and hope people are safe.”

[See also: Britons are reducing energy use to save money – and the environment]