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Rossen Reports update: How to use a space heater safely

by Jeff Rossen and Anneke Foster /  / Updated  / Source: TODAY

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Space heaters are popular devices for a number of reasons: They're small, cost efficient and can keep your family warm. But it turns out, many people use them incorrectly and in an instant, tragedy can strike.

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During Thanksgiving weekend, four family members in Texas were killed in a fire sparked by a space heater that was used the wrong way. A few days ago, another fire caused by a space heater killed five puppies in Oklahoma City.

Millions of people use space heaters to keep warm in winter. But according to a warning from the National Fire Protection Association, space heaters are a leading cause of house fires.

According to Jamie Novak, a fire investigator with the St. Paul Fire Department in Minnesota, space heaters "are small, but they draw a lot of electricity." He stressed the importance of plugging your space heater directly into the wall, telling TODAY national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen in February that some people use cheap extension cords. The trouble is, many extension cords just can't handle that amount of electricity.

Novak said it was also important to keep your space heater 3 feet away from "anything that will burn — best to do it in the middle of the room."

Sometimes people accidentally let blankets fall right on top of space heaters. To show how quickly that can start a major fire, Novak set up a real-life demonstration inside a real house, with a team of firefighters standing by.

Space heaters: House fire demonstration
A dramatic demonstration shows how quickly a space heater can start a raging house fire.TODAY

In mere minutes, the blanket caught fire. The flames quickly spread to a sofa, which sent out choking black smoke. Within just a few more minutes, the fire traveled from room to room to engulf the house in flames.

There are space heaters with an automatic shut-off switch in case the device gets too hot or is accidentally knocked over. But experts say even those heaters can be dangerous if used improperly, so you should still follow the 3-foot rule, and not plug them into extension cords.

It's also important to check the batteries in your smoke detectors, and to come up with a fire escape plan with your family. If you don't have one, learn how to set one up here.

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