With so many irons in the fire, it’s easy to let simple safety precautions slide. No one wants to think about a potentially catastrophic fire erupting in their home, but the danger of that happening is very real, and sadly, all too common. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 25 percent of all reported fires happen in residential structures, with a home fire igniting somewhere in the United States every 89 seconds. A total of more than 350,000 houses go up in flames each year, resulting in nearly 4,000 fatalities; more than 11,000 people surviving with injuries; and at least $7.2 billion in property damage.
You may be oblivious to the hotbed of fire safety pitfalls currently existing in your home. These dangers put you, your family, your pets, and all of your belongings at risk. Should a fire break out in your house — one that you are unable to extinguish yourself — get yourself and your loved ones out of the house first, then call 911, and let the professional firefighters handle it. If you face a fire in your home, the most important first step is to call 911 as soon as possible. While calling, make sure you are near an exit so you can escape safely if the situation gets worse.
Better yet, avoid being in the hot seat altogether by knowing — and avoiding — the potentially life-threatening causes of many residential fires. This list is by no means complete, but it is a good place to start, so let’s fire off those hazards:
Smoking is the number one cause of fire-related fatalities, which is just one more reason to stop smoking. The number one cause of all house fires is cooking, and it is the second most likely to cause death. Fires in the kitchen account for more than 500 deaths a year, injuring nearly 5,000 people, and creating over a billion dollars in property damage every year.
If you can stand the heat and don’t want to stay out of the kitchen, never leave your cooking unattended. You may be tempted to wander off into other rooms just for a second while your chicken is browning or your garlic is sauteing, but don’t. And if you are baking, don’t take those 20 minutes your cupcakes are rising to go refuel your car quickly. You could come home to something much worse than blackened-to-a-crisp cupcakes. Unattended food preparation, either stovetop or in the oven, is the primary reason so many kitchen fires occur.
Keep your stovetop and oven clean and avoid placing anything flammable — towels, oven mitts, cereal boxes — near your heat source. It’s a good idea to have a 3-foot clearance around your stove while cooking. This is especially important when you have small children in the home to keep them safe from hot items cooking on the stovetop. Also, avoid wearing loose clothing. If you have to keep the recipe nearby while attempting to make lemon custard pie filling, make sure it is far from the flame. A little custard curdling is far better than a lot of property damage or worse.
If a fire does happen on the stovetop, take a metal lid and slide it over and onto the pan, then turn off the burners. The lid should smother the flame, but don’t peek to see if it has. Let it sit until cooled, and then you can remove the lid.
Should a fire erupt in your oven, do not open the oven door. Oxygen in your kitchen will just fan those flames, which could then burn your face and hair and spread like wildfire to other objects in your kitchen. Turn off the oven and call 911 immediately. Mike DeSumma with the Columbia Fire Department advises: “If you have a fire, always call 911 first. If the fire goes out before we get there, our firefighters can check to make sure the situation is safe. It’s better to have us on the way than to take the chance of the situation getting worse.” After you turn off the oven and call 911, get yourself and your loved ones out of the kitchen, closing the door behind you to contain the fire, and then get out of the house.
Remember that oil and water really do not mix, so never throw water — or anything liquid — onto a grease fire. Water is much denser than oil, so it will quickly settle underneath the grease and expand to 1,700 times its size, thereby pushing the oil out of the pan, causing a very dangerous and possibly lethal explosion.
And don’t whack at the fire with a towel or apron. It didn’t work on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and it won’t work for you. Experts recommend keeping a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, but be aware that, just like all fires are not the same, all fire extinguishers are not the same either. Mike from the Columbia Fire Department recommends Class ABC as the best fire extinguisher for everyday people to use, as they are smaller than Class K and can also put out grease fires.
Be sure to P.A.S.S. when you operate your extinguisher: (P)ull out the pin, (A)im at the base of the fire, (S)queeze the trigger, and
(S)weep back and forth across the fire until it is completely extinguished.
Lighting, and Wiring, and Gadgets, Oh My!
Our worlds are lit up, but computers, televisions, refrigerators, microwaves — all the things that make life worth living — use electricity, and electrical fires account for 32,000 house fires per year. Generally, these blazes can be traced to old outlets, antiquated appliances, cords that are worn or frayed, and a behind-the-times breaker system. If your home is more than 20 years old, it may not be wired to handle all of these newfangled gizmos, so your circuit breaker could overload, causing a fire.
Lights that dim when you plug in another device are a good indication that you are dealing with 2023 gadgets on a 2013 wiring system. And if any appliance cord is beginning to look “vintage,” don’t use it. It could easily ignite a fire on wooden floors, curtains, and rugs. Also, never run cords under carpets or rugs. It may seem aesthetically appealing — we certainly don’t want our neighbors to know we have, gasp!, cords — but the danger of doing so is not worth the pleasure of seeming cord-free.
Another dangerous habit frequently used by those of us with more electronic objects than outlets is the usage of extension cords with multiple plugs. Experts say that extension cords should only be used temporarily. You should get a licensed electrician to safely install more outlets in order to accommodate all of your electronic needs.
Space heaters get a lot of bad press when it comes to fire hazards, and rightfully so. The advantage of using one is that it is portable. The danger? It is portable and can inadvertently be placed next to combustibles. Coil space heaters — with their hot little exposed rings — present the greatest risk, so if you must use one, radiator-types are recommended. You should also keep space heaters at least 3 feet away from anything that can catch fire, including fabrics, bedding, and furniture. When at all possible, keep space heaters off the carpeting and on hard surfaces, and do not power them using surge protectors or extension cords. Space heaters need to be plugged directly into a wall outlet.
Be aware that even some of our most modern looking contraptions — such as laptops or iPads — may not come with automatic shutdown. If they run longer than our attention span, they can overheat, and everything nearby can go up in smoke.
Our home lighting choices can often be inadvertent fire risks as well. Overhead lighting is rarely flattering, so our homes are flooded with lamps of all shapes and sizes. Make sure you use only the recommended wattage for the bulbs you plug in. You might want your closed-in porch to be visible from outer space, but putting in a bulb that has a wattage higher than your fixture allows is very, very risky.
If you are into occasional “mood” lighting designed to create a romantic atmosphere, don’t throw towels or scarves over your lamps to create the desired effect. That mood could ultimately involve firetrucks, so treat yourself to a lamp with a dimmer instead.
Fire prevention gives those of us who are neat-challenged yet one more reason to clean up our acts. Careless housekeeping can lead to fires. Stuffing old junk, paper, and batteries together, especially 9-volt batteries, can catch drawers on fire. While not the same as pants on fire, it is still pretty bad. And a dusty home won’t just make you sneeze. That dust can turn into a fire if it catches a spark, and it can spread with remarkable speed. Sure, your dusting problems will be gone, but so will your house.
Even our washers and dryers require an extra level of vigilance to avoid a house fire. You have to clean out the dryer lint! Every. Single. Load. If that seems excessive, know that accumulations of lint can back into the vents and start a flame. Get your dryer checked and cleaned once a year by a professional. Often, this type of expert is the same person as your chimney sweep, who can also inspect and clean out your chimney. I’m sure Bert in Mary Poppins would have done so, had dryers been invented back when Bert was busy popping into chalk drawings.
While they may not be able to create magical chalk drawings or dance on our rooftops, a licensed professional is still needed to clean our chimneys. Every time another romantic fire is lit, smoke containing unburned wood particles passes up through the chimney, leaving a residue of creosote and soot. Creosote is highly combustible, which can lead to a fire that spreads quickly to attics, nearby walls, and other combustibles.
Sadly, more than 15,000 house fires are caused by candles every year, and most begin in the bedroom. These waxy little mood setters can, if left unattended, turn into a fire that no amount of aromatherapy will cure. Falling asleep with a candle burning is extremely dangerous and accounts for most candle-to-fire fatalities. You can still enjoy your flickering lights, but never leave them unsupervised and take care to fully extinguish them before leaving the room or going to bed. And never light them near curtains, Christmas trees, blinds, or anything flammable. Be careful where they are placed. Or switch to LED candles instead.
Improper Storage of Flammable Liquids
Almost all of us have some sort of flammable liquid stockpiled somewhere in the house, garage, or shed. Make sure these hotties are stored in approved containers that have been properly tested — not just your empty milk jugs — and if you use metal containers, keep an eye out for rust. Holes can form, which may allow liquid or vapors to escape and catch fire. Always store combustible liquids in dry cool places, with good ventilation, far from anything that might spark.
Playing with Fire
Sometimes those old adages such as “don’t play with matches” are dead on. Lighters and matches are fascinating to children, and sadly, simply telling them not to play with these items without taking further precautions increases their risk of being burned. The lighters and matches will still be fascinating, but now these little ones will be more likely to play with them in hidden areas to avoid discovery, such as under a bed or in a closet, where things can go very badly very quickly.
Grownups in the house should not only tell small children of the dangers but also should make sure that these tempting little fire makers are not accessible to them — stored up high in an unknown location or preferably in a locked cabinet.
Never leave a small child alone in a room with a lighted candle, even if you think it is out of reach. They are excellent climbers and will get to that tempting flame before you can say, “London Bridge is burning down.”
Missed Recall Information
What the blazes?! Won’t companies call us directly to let us know that our microwave has an eerie habit of turning on by itself and could cause a house fire? Unfortunately, they will not, so it is up to us to keep up with recall information.
Remember that not all appliances are innocent, helpful little things. Some of them are just bad. In June of this past year, more than a million Schneider Electric breaker boxes, also known as electrical panels or load centers, were recalled because they were found to be a fire hazard. Certain types of phone chargers, washers and dryers, lawn mowers, tower heaters, black light fixtures, microwave bowl holders, electric bicycles, heated blankets, Bluetooth speakers, illuminated mirrors, hot glue guns, menorahs, electrical space heaters, and treadmills were all recalled by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission because they posed a risk of fire.
Websites list such things, including one by the CPSC, so check the lists and listen to the news to see if you have one of those bad seeds hanging around your house just waiting to do some serious mischief.
Lack of Smoke Alarms and/or No Family
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and being alerted to it can save lives. Smoke alarms should be installed in every bedroom in your house, outside of all sleeping areas, and on every level of your house, including the basement. While it’s ideal to have interconnected alarms throughout your home that will all sound in the event of a fire, alarms that are not interconnected are effective as well.
Test the smoke alarms once a month and change your smoke alarm batteries every six months. If your smoke alarm is chirping, it means that the alarm’s battery needs to be changed. A good practice is to change the batteries every time you set your clocks backward or forward.
If dusty conditions exist in your home, this can cause your smoke alarms to beep. Try removing the alarm and blowing the dust out of them to remedy the problem. If that does not work, the alarm’s battery may need to be changed or it may need to be replaced entirely.
Create a family evacuation plan — just in case — and walk through it together, looking at all the possible exits and escape routes in every room. Make sure to keep these pathways clear and ensure that doors and windows can be opened easily. Keep escape ladders near windows located on upper levels and confirm that your home address is clearly visible from the street. Finally, set up a family meeting place — somewhere outside and away from the house — should a fire occur. Once the meeting place has been established, ensure that it isn’t near the road where the firetrucks will be stationed when they arrive.
Even if all precautions are taken, house fires can still happen. Don’t move around your on-fire items or you may cause the fire to spread. Don’t open windows unless it is your only means of escape; it will feed the fire, cause the smoke to billow, and make it more likely that you will succumb to smoke inhalation.
Don’t open doors that are warm to the touch or have smoke billowing under them or from the sides. If you must escape through the smoke, try to go quickly and as low as possible, closing all doors behind you. If you are completely blocked, call 911, put a wet towel under the door, cover the vents to keep smoke from seeping in, and gesture through any window. If your clothes catch fire, don’t run. Stop, drop, cover your face, and roll back and forth to extinguish the flames.
Hopefully none of us will be faced with these terrifying circumstances, but continued education about household fire hazards is the first step in avoiding catastrophe. When it comes to your home and the lives and safety of your loved ones, there is no such thing as friendly fire.