With bitter cold gripping much of the East, the government issued a warning about the fire hazards posed by space heaters (search).

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (search) said at least 49 deaths nationwide since Dec. 1 stemmed from fires caused by the heaters.

While the deaths are on pace with the 190 heater-related fire deaths per year, the recent frigid temperatures, particularly in the Northeast, create higher risks as many consumers scramble to stay warm, said Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the commission.

"The word needs to get out: If you have an old space heater, or a good working space heater that is close to flammable materials, you're putting yourself at risk," he said.

Consumers are urged to use newer model heaters that shut off if tipped over and have special guarding over the heating elements. Other tips include:

--Keep flammable materials such as bedding, drapes and furniture at least 3 feet away from space heaters.

--Do not go to sleep or leave a room with the heater on.

--Be alert to the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning (search), a deadly invisible gas that emanates when consumers improperly use hibachis, grills or stoves to warm a home. The gas can kill if there is inadequate room ventilation.

Wolfson also encouraged consumers to be sensitive to the elderly or the poor, since those groups tend to misuse heaters or ignore the dangers to stay warm at a low cost.