Smoke threading from chimneys and frost-coated windshields are indicating that cold weather is upon us. With that, the threat of house fires increases, as we button down for the winter, turn on furnaces and stoke stoves.

Oct. 9-15 is National Fire Prevention Week, a reminder that burning fuel — wood, oil, propane — in a well-maintained system is vitally important. Deadly fires attributed to heating equipment peak during the darkest, coldest months of winter, and they are the second leading cause, behind cooking-mishaps and unattended cooking, of home fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

From 2005 to 2009, an average of 64,100 house fires occurred annually in the U.S. resulting from faulty heating equipment. The majority of those fires were caused by failure to clean chimneys free of creosote. In Maine, where many heat with wood in old homes constructed around brick and cement fireplaces, there are approximately 500 chimney fires each year, according to the Maine State Fire Marshal’s Office.

Across the country, house fires are reported constantly: Approximately every other minute a report of some form of house fire is called into the local fire department. On average, seven people die every day, victims of fire, the Fire Protection Association reports. While there are accidents and we can’t stop lightning from setting a home ablaze, the majority of fires are preventable and we can protect against human error.

That includes keeping flammable objects well away from the heart source. Half of home heating fire deaths resulted from fires caused by heating equipment too close to upholstered furniture, clothing, mattresses or bedding.

Roughly two-thirds of home fire deaths occur in homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms; yet smoke detectors are, more often than not, the single greatest reason why families escape unharmed when fire strikes in the middle of the night. Approximately one in five smoke alarm failures are due to dead batteries and they should be checked regularly. It might be helpful to choose a particular birthday or holiday on which to conduct a test. Just do it.

Families also need to have fire safety plans that include alternative escape routes from a house and an agreed-upon meeting place outside, safely away from the structure. If one is an apartment renter and a building is not equipped with properly functioning detectors, contact the code department at the town office or local fire department.

Multi-level homes should be equipped with specially designed ladders that can be used to escape from an upper floor when stairways and doors are blocked by fire and smoke.

Fire extinguishers should be kept in homes and checked according to the instructions that come with them. It’s also a good idea to practice with an extinguisher if unfamiliar with the device.

And with darkness overtaking the hours of sunlight we have a day, there is increased use of candles in the home. Keep this in mind: On average, there are 35 home candle fires reported per day, with two-fifths of these fires started in the bedroom. More than half of all candle fires start when things that can burn are too close to the candle.

There is no substitute for preparation when it comes to keeping families safe from fire. Set aside some time this week to get the family together and talk about what to do in case fire strikes, and to practice exiting the home. And check the smoke detectors!