ST. LOUIS — Brandie Nixon awoke the Saturday before Christmas to the screams of her 6-year-old son, Kurtus, then saw smoke and fire in his bedroom of the family's small home in St. Clair.
A portable heater had somehow ignited a toy box, the fire eventually spreading to the bed where Kurtus was sleeping. Fortunately, he awoke in time to scamper to safety, the lone injuries blisters on his feet.
"The house didn't have heat," said Nixon, a 25-year-old Wal-Mart employee, explaining the use of the portable heater. The family is looking for a new home, one with a furnace.
"I would not use heaters again. It's too risky," Nixon said.
With temperatures dipping well below zero over much of the nation, people who can't afford to heat their homes or apartments, or homeless people huddled in warehouses and abandoned buildings, sometimes turn to space heaters, stoves, ovens, candles and even kerosene or propane heaters meant for the outdoors.
The U.S. Fire Administration says more than 50,000 residential fires annually are caused by heating, resulting in about 150 deaths. January is the peak month for heating-related fires.
"I think it's principally a desperation thing," said William Siedhoff, director of Human Services for the city of St. Louis. "When you're freezing cold, sometimes logic goes out the window and you seek out whatever means you can to stay warm."
In the western Missouri town of Belton, an elderly man died Thursday when his mobile home caught fire. The home was heated with space heaters, neighbors said, though the cause of the fire remained under investigation.
In St. Louis, three people were rescued from a burning office building on Christmas morning. The owner allowed them to sleep there in exchange for keeping an eye on the warehouse, but a space heater used to keep them warm apparently sparked the fire.
Homeless people trying to stay warm were blamed for a December fire at another St. Louis warehouse. Firefighters rescued two people, and five others got out on their own.
In Kansas City, a single mother and her five children were left homeless after bedding caught fire from a space heater.
"She said the space heater was necessary because she couldn't afford the gas bill," said Belva Ewing of the American Red Cross office in Kansas City.
Volunteers for the Red Cross are typically among the first on the scene of the fires. Cindy Erickson, regional CEO for the Red Cross office in St. Louis, said her organization commonly sees winter fires sparked by "space heaters, ovens, candles."
Fires aren't the only concerns. Improper use of heating devices is a common cause of carbon monoxide deaths.
Authorities in Pike County said a couple found dead last month in the camper where they were living died of carbon monoxide poisoning. They were using a portable propane heater to stay warm.
Experts warn against use of alternative heat sources. Instead, the St. Louis Health Department advises residents to keep their homes at a temperature of no less than 60 degrees, to dress in layers both inside and out.
The U.S. Fire Administration encourages screens for fireplaces and frequent chimney inspections to help avoid fireplace fires. For those using space heaters, keep all items at least three feet away. The USFA said people should only buy space heaters that automatically shut off power if they fall over. Wood stoves should be fed only with seasoned wood. Propane and kerosene heaters should not be used indoors.
Siedhoff said those who can't afford heat should stay with a relative or friend, or go to a shelter, rather than resort to dangerous heating methods. He knows the problem won't be going away anytime soon.
"We've got two months of very hard winter ahead of us," Siedhoff said.