LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It was a frigid 2 degrees on Jan. 29 when the 11 members of the Watson family were sleeping in their Depoy, Ky., home, using a wall-mounted baseboard heater to pump warm air into the house.
Sometime around 2 a.m. combustible items near the heater caught fire, authorities said. The flames quickly spread through the Muhlenberg County home and killed nine members of the family, including a mother and eight children. The father and an 11-year-old daughter were sent to hospitals in Nashville with serious injuries.
Space heaters cause about one-third of all winter house fires and 80 percent of all winter heating fire deaths, the National Fire Protection Association said. The suspected cause of the fire at the Watson home, combustible materials placed too close to a heating unit, is not uncommon — it accounts for more than half of all home heating fire deaths across the country, according to a 2013 report issued by the NFPA.
Space heaters also account for more than 70 percent of all winter fire injuries and half of all property damage caused in heating fires, the report said.
Temperatures have been well below average this winter, causing many households to turn to alternative heating options. The Kentuckiana Region of the American Red Cross reported Tuesday that during January, there were 100 home fires in the 55 counties in Kentucky and Southern Indiana covered by the organization.
For the most part, Louisville has not seen an uptick in heater-based fires so far this winter, even with more people using secondary heating sources in the extreme cold, said Mike Allendorf, Okalona fire marshal and vice president of the Jefferson County Fire Inspectors Association.
"Thank goodness," he said, but that's not always the case.
On Jan. 9, four children and their father died in an early morning blaze in Jonancy, Ky. The mother of those children survived with serious burns. The family had been sleeping near an electric space heater when the fire began, and the space heater likely started the fire, officials said.
Allendorf said that people get into trouble when they have the "it's not going to happen to me mentality."
In 2011, the most recent year examined by the report, there were an estimated 53,600 structure fires nationwide caused by heating equipment. In those, 400 people died, 1,520 were injured and the total property damage was estimated to be $893 million.
Space heaters account for only a third of winter heater fires but cause 80 percent of the deaths. The issue is one of perception, Allendorf said. Usually when people start fires in fireplaces they make sure to put them out before they go to sleep because they can see the flames, he said.
But with a space heater, there are no visible flames, so people let their guards down. It's even worse when the space heater is built into the wall, he said, because it creates an even deeper sense of security for homeowners.
There is supposed to be a 36-inch radius around a space heater, but most people don't think about the danger, Allendorf said. People wouldn't consider tossing laundry into a fireplace, but leaving it on top of or near a space heater is all too common, he said.
Residents will go to sleep, enjoying the heat from the space heater, all the while a slow burn fills their home with smoke. Eventually the fire will start, usually when people are asleep and most vulnerable, Allendorf said. That accounts for the high mortality rate in space heater fires, he said.
The most important thing people can do to prevent heater fires is to realize "it can happen to me," Allendorf said.
"Murphy's law (what can go wrong, will go wrong) is still there, and it reaches out to bite people all the time," he said.
Contributing: The Associated Press