Winter months see spike in clothes dryer fires, major cause often ignored

An investigation by Scripps Sister Station WEWS in Cleveland found that a major cause of clothes dryer fires — which spike during winter months — is often ignored until fire breaks out.

A review of fire inspection reports obtained from the Ohio Fire Marshal's Office reveal 580 clothes dryer fires across Ohio in the last two years.

Nearly one in four was caused by lint buildup inside the dryer — but specific steps to prevent lint fires are rarely taken by consumers.

A recent report from the U.S. Fire Administration  estimates there are 2,900 clothes dryer fires every year, causing 5 deaths, 100 injuries and $35 million in properly loss.

Heavy clothes, sweaters and blankets used during winter months shed much more lint and create fire hazards during winter months.

But cleaning the "lint trap" alone is not enough to prevent fires.

Fire investigators say cleaning the lint trap is just a first step — the real buildup of lint happens out of sight and is overlooked by most consumers.

The WEWS investigation teamed up with vent cleaning experts and the North Eastern Ohio Fire Prevention Association, NEOFPA, to reveal how lint buildup over years can quietly accumulate and trigger fires.

Rick Strah operates Advanced Air Duct Solution, Inc. , a company specializing in dryer vent cleaning.

"Just building up in here," said Strah after taking the back cover off of one dryer.

"All your electrical wiring is all coated in this stuff."

It also builds up inside the vent tubing leading to the outside.

Strah used a high powered vacuum that suctioned huge piles of lint buildup, which over time actually clogs vents from functioning properly.

Fire investigators found that as lint builds up and is exposed to heat, fires can easily erupt.

Mike Kocab is Fire Marshal for the Willoughby Fire Department and a member of NEOFPA.

"That would burn right through and cause a fire in the wall," said Kocab, who demonstrated how lint can ignite and start a fire.

To demonstrate how quickly flames can spread if a lint fire comes into contact with clothes, the WEWS investigation recreated a typical laundry room.

Kocab, using a lighter, lit a small buildup of lint and it quickly caught fire.

In another demonstration, firefighters recreated a clothes dryer to show how quickly flames can spread from the clothes dryer and engulf a laundry room.

Kocab says there are two major warning signs you may have severe lint buildup:

  •     Clothes taking too long to dry, requiring another cycle of drying
  •     Laundry room being warmer than usual.

Both are signs the vent is clogged with lint.

The investigation found specifics steps you can take to prevent lint fires:

  •     Clean the lint screen after each load.
  •     Clean behind the dryer.
  •     Check and clean exhaust vents at least one a year.
  •     Remove the dryer back and vacuum the inside of the dryer ever two years.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission wrote to Underwriters Laboratory  in November 2011 calling for new safety standards that could reduce dryer fires.

UL Product Safety Tips

The commission also warns consumers that properly maintaining clothes dryers is vital to preventing fires.

A spokesperson for Underwriters Laboratories said a new safety standard went into effect for dryers manufactured after March 2013 that would aid in "containing" a fire to the inside of the dryer itself, but stopped short of safety standards called for by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

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