Sub-zero temperatures like we've been experiencing lately make even those of us who take things for granted appreciate having a warm place to huddle away from the cold.
Warding off the cold takes energy in some form, be it fire from wood or natural gas, or warmth generated by electrical resistance.
Unfortunately, extreme cold stresses heating systems no matter the source, and hardly a day goes by when we don't hear of a house fire, often caused by a malfunctioning heating device, carelessness with smoking materials or a short in an electrical circuit.
The American Red Cross knows the story.
It responded to more than 74,000 disasters across the United States last year, and 93 percent of them were fire related.
And it hasn't gotten better. The Red Cross is responding to 10 percent more home fires than it did six years ago, and nationally, the number of home fires has increased 8 percent since 2000. The average cost of a home fire in 2006 was more than $17,000.
While fires kill more Americans each year than all natural disasters combined, 80 percent of Americans don't realize that home fires are the single most common disaster across the nation, and only 26 percent of families have actually developed and practiced a home fire escape plan.
In 2006, a home fire was reported every 80 seconds, someone dies from a home fire every 204 minutes, and they're twice as likely to be a child under five, an adult over 65, and, while African Americans represent less than 13 percent of the population, they account for 25 percent of the deaths.
Cooking fires cause most home fires and injuries, heating fires are the second leading cause, but smoking is the leading cause of home fire deaths.
While sprinklers and smoke alarms together cut your risk of dying in a home fire by 82 percent, 74 percent of home fire deaths occurred in homes with no smoke alarms, or smoke alarms that weren't working.
Each year, more than 200 people die from carbon monoxide produced by fuel-burning appliances in the home, including furnaces, ranges, water heaters and room heaters.
The Red Cross offers the following tips for avoiding potentially tragic situations:
* Install a smoke alarm on every level of a home and outside of sleeping areas.
* Test alarm batteries every month, and change them at least once a year.
* Practice a fire escape plan at least twice a year. Designate a meeting spot outside, a safe distance from the home.
* Have the family practice low crawling and at different times of the day.
* Consider escape ladders for second or third floors. Make sure everyone in the home learns how to use them.
* Teach family members to stop, drop to the ground and roll if their clothes catch on fire.
* Never open doors warm to the touch.
* If smoke, heat or flames block an exit, stay in the room with the door closed.
* If possible, place a towel under the door and call the fire department to alert them to your location.
* Go to the window and signal for help waving a bright-colored cloth or a flashlight.
* Once out of the home, stay out until a fire official gives permission to go back inside.
More fire safety and preparedness information is available at www.redcross.org/homefires.