Home Fires – They Should Worry Us All

A home fire is an emergency more than a disaster, based on my definitions (What’s A Disaster? – And Other Important Words), but since fires are common and preventable, they still are a good scary fact for this time of year. Why this time of year? Most residential fires occur during winter months, primarily because of increased cooking and heating.

House Fire

Fire Department puts out a house fire. Photo by Mark Kelley.

The Facts of Home Fires

The National Fire Protection Association “Fire Loss In The United States During 2011” has good current data, based on fire station surveys throughout the United States (fires extinguished by owners aren’t included). Firefighters responded to almost 1.4 million fires in 2011. Thank goodness only one in three involved structures, because 76% of building fires involve homes or apartments, killing 3,005 and injuring 17,500 civilians in 2011. In other words, in the United States a home fire occurs every 85 seconds, someone is injured from fire every 38 minutes, and a civilian dies every 208 minutes! No wonder fires and burns are routinely in the top three causes of accidental home deaths.

Good news: home fire numbers are down by more than 50% compared to the 1970s. We must be doing something right. Bad news: when a home fire occurs, the likelihood of death is as high as ever. We must also be doing something wrong. Almost two-thirds of home fire deaths occur in buildings with either inoperable or absent smoke alarms. Sounds suspiciously like the culprit to me!

What Causes Home Fires?

Forearm scald.

Cooking burn. Photo by Quasimime.

Cooking (*foodie alert*): 42% of major home fires start in the kitchen, usually when cooking food is left unattended.  The most common day of the year for cooking fires? Thanksgiving of course – lots of food, cooks, distractions and alcohol!

  • STAND BY YOUR PAN! If frying, broiling or grilling, stay with your food. Turn off the stove if you leave even for a minute. These cooking methods (particularly frying) can cause sudden ignition of oils or food. You have only seconds to respond!
  • WATCH WHAT YOU HEAT! If baking, roasting, simmering, or boiling, check food regularly and stay in the house (not gardening or running errands). Use a very loud timer to remind you when food is done.
  • Keep flammables away from stoves – towels, trash, food packaging, and papers. Wear short tight-fitting sleeves and pull hair back. Food fires spread quickly to clothes – the main reason for severe injury or death in kitchen fires.
  • Putting out kitchen fires – smother small grease fires by putting on a mitt, carefully sliding a lid over the pan, then turning off the burner. Leave the lid on and do not move the pan until completely cool. In an oven fire, turn off the heat and keep the oven door closed.
  • If a fire spreads beyond the pan or oven, do not attempt to put it out. Get everyone out of the house and call 911.
  • FEMA has a good short video on putting out stove fires: “Know What to Do if There is a Kitchen Fire“.
Stove Fire

Stovetop Fire. Photo by Jenni Konrad.

Heating Equipment – One in five home fires relate to heating. Central heat, space heaters, hot water heaters, fireplaces, wood stoves and chimneys all play a part.  Heat related fires occur most often in free-standing personally owned houses, whereas other causes of home fires happen more commonly in apartment buildings.

  • Paper, fabric, and other flammable materials can ignite if near a heat source. Storage of combustibles near gas water heaters is a particularly bad combination. Yet prevention is just common sense – pay attention where you put things!! Keep anything that can burn at least three feet away from heat sources.
  • Creosote – a sticky combustible tar-like substance that accumulates on chimney walls above wood fires. Highly flammable, it causes 25% of heat related fires.  Get your chimneys cleaned every year – keep chimney sweeps in business (Chim Chim Cher-ee)!
  • Portable electrical space heaters have a high failure and malfunction rate. Do not use portable space heaters while sleeping, and turn off before leaving the house.
  • Use stationary heating equipment that is safety certified, installed by a professional, and maintained regularly.
Book Fire Hazard

Just add space heater, and surprise – a fire! Photo by Oliver Hammond.

Smoking: Smoking causes 5% of house fires, yet 32% of apartment fires. More importantly, smoking causes 24% of home fire deaths – lots more deaths per fire than any other cause. Being adamantly anti-smoking, one could argue that smokers voluntarily accept this risk when they choose to smoke. Unfortunately, 25% of victims were not the smokers – seems a bit akin to murder.

How does smoking cause fires? People fall asleep while smoking, set their cigarette down “temporarily” on furniture, knock cigarettes out of ash trays, or throw butts in the trash before fully extinguished. Older people are disproportionately represented in smoking related fires. 5557980093_2257cf7e5f_m

  • Do not smoke while drinking, taking drugs or medications that cause sleepiness, or when sleep deprived.
  • Do not smoke in a room where oxygen is in use.
  • Use deep, wide, sturdy ashtrays, set on sturdy fire-resistant surfaces.
  • Extinguish butts in water or sand before dropping or throwing away.
  • Smoke outside.
  • Fire-safe cigarettes are less likely to continue burning if left unattended. They are now mandated in every state.
  • Best of all, stop smoking – a quick way to decrease both the risk of  fire and illness for you and your loved ones

 

Smoke Alarms

As much as I believe in emergency kits, earthquake proofing your home, and other preparedness steps, it sounds like smoke alarms are even more important.

  • You need a smoke alarm outside every sleeping area and on every floor of the house. If one room is kept closed (like a bedroom), add an alarm inside that room.
  • Change alarm batteries on a scheduled day every year. Don’t wait for a beeping noise before changing batteries! Since beeping often starts in the middle of the night, you’ll be tempted to just remove the battery, go back to sleep, and forget all about it in the morning – not that I have ever done this, of course :).
  • Make sure smoke alarms work!!! Authorities recommend testing monthly, but this is probably not realistic. Aim for once a quarter. If it’s hard to reach the test button (mine are on a 20 foot ceiling), apparently there are alarms testable with a flashlight beam, and alarms that go off regularly at a fixed time (like old fire station tests).
  • Smoke alarm life span is only around 10 years. Replace them every 10 years even when working OK.
  • Test your smoke alarm when your kids are asleep and see if they wake up! Alarms don’t penetrate a sleeping child’s brain very well. When my neighbor’s house was on fire, the kids slept through the alarm, the smoke, and my pounding on the door next to their room.
  • Consider interconnecting your alarms so all will sound when one is activated. You can also add flashing lights.
  • Do you want even better home fire safety? Consider a home sprinkler system, particularly when you are building or remodeling. Home fire death rate is 83% lower with sprinkler systems. If office buildings have them, why shouldn’t homes?
Smoke Alarm

Wireless smoke alarm, able to communicate with each other.

As often happens when I write about a “simple” topic, I discover there is sooo much I don’t have room for. Fires shall go on my re-visit list, perhaps before next year’s Christmas decorations. In the meantime, check out the awesome information on the National Fire Protection Association website. Research, consumer safety information, activities for kids, and links galore – a great place to start for more information on fires and safety.

Stay safe,

Sheila Sund, M.D.

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Comments
  1. Almost had a fire in my house this past weekend from a space heater that had a melt down of sorts… fortunately for my family and I, the smoke detector was quite vigilant and I was able to grab the device and heave it out into the snow!

    My personal story aside, fires are the number one hazard for businesses as well. They result in more down time and losses than any other hazard.

    • disasterdoc says:

      Close encounters with fires always shake me up. The inspiration for our first go-bags 10 years ago was watching our neighbor’s house burn down. I try to use the problem with business fires to inspire local medical clinics to do business continuity planning, without much success yet!

  2. Kristi Kelty says:

    Excellent article!
    Would like some comparisons of smoke alarms in your follow up article–as there are many out there. Thanks!

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