Your home is somewhere you expect to feel safe. Yet more injuries and deaths from fire occur in the home than in any other place. In fact, the U.S. Fire Administration reported deaths from residential building fires increased in 2016 and aging adults are at a greater risk of fire death than the general public.
Don’t underestimate the danger of fire. Use this guide to help you prepare and learn what to do if a fire breaks out in your home.
Cooking fires are the leading cause of home fires and injuries. In 2016, 183,000 house fires were caused by cooking. That’s over 148,000 more fires than home heating fires—the second leading cause of home fires.
Most cooking fires are caused by behavior, rather than appliances. In addition to making sure burners or ovens aren’t left on after cooking or potholders left too close to heat sources, here are some things to be aware of to decrease the chance of a cooking fire:
- Never leave the stovetop unattended.
- If you’re using an electric stove, use a burner that is the right size for the pan. A burner that is too large can cause the pan and its contents to heat too quickly, which can lead to boil-overs, scorching, and burning.
- If you’re using a gas stove, keep the flame entirely under the pan. A flame that surrounds the pan can easily ignite a loose-fitting sleeve
- Keep the stovetop, oven, and range hood free of grease and spills that can catch on fire.
Home electrical fires can occur if wires are installed incorrectly or if circuits are overloaded. Some warning signs of an electrical malfunction can include flickering or dimming lights; switches or outlets that are hot to the touch or emit a pungent odor; discolored cords, outlets, and switchplates; or repeated blown fuses or tripped circuit breakers.
Here’s how you can protect yourself from starting an electrical fire:
- Hire a qualified, licensed electrician to inspect your home and make any necessary repairs.
- Replace fuses or circuit breakers with the correct size.
- Don’t run cords under carpeting, bedding, or other combustible materials. Don’t run cords across a frequently traveled area.
- Discard frayed or broken cords and never splice two cords together.
- Use the right wattage for lamps and fixtures.
- Position lamps away from open windows, where strong breezes can blow draperies onto hot light bulbs.
Since the 1970s, upholstered furniture fires have declined in part because of evolutionary changes in the materials used to make upholstered furniture.
Furniture can play a large role in how quickly a fire spreads. And that’s because the foam and fillers burn rapidly, release tremendous heat, produce toxic gases, and consume oxygen rapidly.
You spend a lot of time picking out the perfect furniture for your home—making sure it’s the correct color, material, and has just the right amount of comfort. But do you ever consider if it’s fire resistant? Here are a few things to be aware of when choosing new furniture for your house and to keep your equipment safe from a fire:
- Choose products that are specifically designed to be more fire resistant than conventional furniture. You can look for furniture made under the Upholstered Furniture Action Council program or meets the requirements of the California Bureau of Home Furnishings.
- Furniture that complies with any one of these standards will still burn, but it will burn more slowly and release less toxic smoke, giving you more time to escape.
- When lighting smoking materials or candles, be sure sparks don’t land on the furniture.
- Use large, deep ashtrays and don’t rest them on a sofa or chair.
- Replace your old mattress. Mattresses manufactured after 1973 are required to be more resistant to ignition by cigarettes .
- Keep electrical cords, lamps, and appliances away from upholstered furniture and mattresses.
- Keep open flames, such as candles, away from upholstered furniture, draperies, mattresses and lampshades.
Home Heating Fires
Fireplaces, wood or pellet stoves, and other fuel-fired appliances are often used as an alternative way to heat your house. But the improper use of these other heating methods is a leading cause of home fires in December, January, and February.
If you’re planning to use another method to keep warm in your house, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Allow 3 feet of open space on all sides of space heaters, wood stoves, and fireplaces.
- Refuel a heater only when it is cool. When refueling, make sure it’s away from any open flames, such as candles or lit cigarettes.
- If you’re using a portable heater, choose a model with a “tip switch.” This will automatically shut off the unit if it is tipped over.
- Be sure your wood or pellet stove is properly installed and up to code.
- Have wood stoves, fireplaces, and chimneys inspected annually and regularly cleaned.
- Use a fire screen or fireplace doors to contain sparks
- Clean your fireplace Never allow more than one inch of buildup of soot or ash.
- Have your chimney inspected every year, even if you have a gas fireplace.
- Have a professional install a safety pilot on gas fireplaces.
Whether you’re using candles in your home during a power outage or to emit a fragrance, it’s important to stay responsible when handling a candle. A candle left unattended or placed near something flammable can result in a home fire.
If you’re using a candle, keep this in mind:
- Place candles on stable furniture where children and pets can’t knock them over.
- Never fall asleep while candles are burning.
- Trim candle wicks to ¼ inch before lighting and use non-combustible holders to catch wax drippings.
- Extinguish candles when you leave a room or when the candles burn within 2 inches of their holders.
- Keep candles away from holiday decorations, papers, books, curtains, blinds, lampshades, flammable liquids, clothing, and bedding.
- Consider replacing regular burning candles with battery operated version to provide ambience
The holidays may mean more time with your family, but it can also present unique fire hazards. Home fires typically occur during the colder months of the year and care caused primarily by cooking, heating, and electrical malfunctions.
Here’s what you can do to reduce the risk of a fire during the holidays:
- Cook with care. Stay in the kitchen when you have something cooking on the stovetop or in the oven.
- Pay attention to indoor decorations and replace any faulty products before use.
- Don’t use products intended for outdoor use only inside your home.
- Use outdoor lights responsibly. Keep cords and lights away from snow or standing water to avoid damage. When installing lights, use a ladder made of wood or fiberglass because metal ladders can conduct electricity.
- Keep matches and lighters away from children.
- Check local laws about using fireworks and follow all regulations. Never allow children to use them unsupervised.
Improperly discarded cigarettes or irresponsible smoking can result in a potentially deadly home fire. Most victims of a home fire caused by smoking were asleep; slowed by alcohol or medication; or challenged by physical, sensory, or cognitive problems, making escape more difficult.
If you’re a smoker, keep these things in mind to reduce your risk of a home fire:
- Consider quitting smoking or refraining from smoking in your home.
- Never smoke in bed, when you’re sleepy, or when you have used medications or alcohol that could make you drowsy.
- Extinguish smoking materials thoroughly to prevent cigarette butts and ashes from igniting other materials. You can do this by dousing the materials under water.
- Use child-resistant lighters. Keep matches and lighters out of the reach of children.
Wildfires are incredibly dangerous and destructive. Much like floodwaters, there is no way for you to fight back against a wildfire. Your best option is to prepare your property to mitigate damage and evacuate. If you live in an area susceptible to wildfires consider making the following modifications to your property.
Property within 30 Feet of Your Home
- Get rid of combustible materials such as dried leaves.
- Cut down any tree limbs that are 15 feet or closer to the ground.
- Remove vines or vegetation that is growing into your house.
Property within 100 to 30 Feet from Your Home
- Use gravel pathways or driveways to create “fuel breaks” across your property.
- Cut tree branches that are three feet or closer to the ground.
- Get rid of combustible materials.
Property within 200 to 100 Feet from Your Home
- Plant trees far enough apart that the branches do not touch.
- Place firewood or scrap wood at this distance from home.
- Get rid of combustible materials.
Fire Safety and Prevention
It’s too late to plan what to do when a fire strikes. In 30 seconds, a small flame can quickly grow out of control. To keep you and your home safe, it’s best to prepare, develop a plan early, and discuss what to do if a fire breaks out in your home.
Putting safety measures in place at your house can be lifesaving. Installing a smoke alarm outside of each sleeping area or inside any bedroom where the door is typically shut can help alert you and your family of a potential fire—no matter where they are in the home.
Whenever there are changes to your household (e.g., a family member begins to use a medication that causes drowsiness, an aging parent with hearing impairment moves in), evaluate the number and types of alarms in your home. If needed, install additional alarms or use models with flashing lights or vibrations to be sure that everyone will be alerted in the event of a fire.
Be sure to place smoke alarms:
- Outside of every bedroom
- Inside of every bedroom where the door is usually shut
- On every story in the house
- In the basement
- Place wall-mounted smoke alarms 4 to 12 inches from the ceiling. The ceiling mounted smoke alarms should be placed at least 4 inches from the nearest wall.
To keep smoke alarms working properly:
- Clean smoke alarms regularly by vacuuming them with a brush attachment.
- Be vigilant about testing your alarms every month,
- Replace the batteries every six months – Daylight Savings Time is a good time to remember to do this
- Buy new alarms every 10 years.
- Always keep batteries in your smoke alarms; never remove them except to replace them with fresh batteries.
- Purchase smoke alarms meeting the national standards developed by Underwriters Laboratories.
Home Sprinkler Systems
If you are building or renovating a home, consider installing sprinklers, especially in a high-risk area such as the kitchen. Home sprinkler systems provide significant protection for your family and property. They are designed so that only the sprinkler closest to the fire will activate, spraying water directly on the fire. Ninety percent of fires are contained by the operation of just one sprinkler.
Knowing what to do when a fire breaks out in your home is important. But not every type of fire should be responded to the same way. For example, an electrical fire wouldn’t be addressed the same way as a grease fire would be.
In the event of a fire, try using a fire extinguisher to put out the flames. Having easy access to a fire extinguisher can significantly reduce the chance a fire spreads in your home. Consider putting a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and anywhere else you could easily access it. You can also try using a fire blanket, which helps smother the flames to extinguish them.
Addressing Different Types of Fires
Generally you can try to put out a fire with water or a fire extinguisher. But with some types of fires, this can put you in more danger.
If you experience an electrical fire, don’t put water on it—you risk the chance of electrocution by doing this. Instead, turn off the power to the electrical system and use a fire extinguisher.
For a grease fire, put a lid on the pan or toss baking soda on the flames. Don’t use water or a fire extinguisher because this can cause oil to splatter and spread the fire even quicker.
Practice with Fire Drills
Making, practicing and following an escape plan will help you and your family get out quickly in the event of a fire. Everyone in your household should participate in fire drills at least twice a year, or whenever there are changes to your household.
Be sure to practice the plan at night, too; nighttime fires are particularly dangerous. More than half of all home fire deaths occur between 9:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., when most people are sleeping and are more likely to be overcome by smoke before they can escape. A smoke alarm near each sleeping area can alert people to a developing fire, giving them more time to get out safely.
In addition to varying when you carry out the drills, pretend that some of the escape routes are blocked. That will give you and your family a chance to prepare for the unexpected.
Even under the best of conditions, you and your family only have a few precious minutes to safely evacuate should a fire occur in your home. And escaping a fire is more difficult and takes more time if you must help someone else.
Fire can harm all of us; however, young children and older adults face the greatest risk for injury and death from home fires. Young children are particularly vulnerable because they have limited control of their environment and a reduced ability to react appropriately. Education and preparation are key elements in preventing fire tragedies among children of all ages.
Disease-related conditions, which are more prevalent in later life, are the primary causes of some functional limitations that would put an older person at greater risk during a fire—namely, limitations in vision, hearing, mobility or judgment. These impairments may hinder a person’s ability to detect a fire or escape its effects.
Any adult who would have difficulty escaping a fire should sleep on the first floor in a room that has a door leading directly outside. It’s a good idea to install a telephone in this sleeping area and to make sure it is within easy reach, with the local emergency phone numbers posted nearby.
Have an Escape Plan
Whether you are living in an apartment building or your own home, dealing with a kitchen fire or a wildfire, you want to have an escape plan in place before a fire. It’s also important that you practice the escape plan with anyone living or staying in your home. Even if it’s grandchildren who are staying for the weekend, make sure guests know the plan. When a fire breaks out, so does panic. It can be impossible for you to orchestrate an escape for everyone in your home at that moment.
With practice, your home fire escape plan can become second nature for almost everyone. Follow these guidelines when creating your evacuation plan:
Plan two ways out of every room. If possible leave your house or apartment through the first floor. Put an emergency ladder that can be lowered out the window in second-floor bedrooms. Make sure windows can be opened and security bars have quick release mechanisms. This way firefighters can help you escape from higher-level floors.
Establish a meeting place outside. Choose a location outside of your home. It’s best to have this place be the front of your yard and away from your home. This will help firefighters find you when they arrive on scene. Do not allow anyone to go back into the home for any reason.
Write it down. A fire escape plan is not effective unless everyone understands the details. Put the plan in writing to share with everyone—including visitors. Draw up a floor plan; mark the primary and alternate escape routes from each room; and indicate where the meeting location is outside of your home. Post the floor plan in several locations where everyone can see it.
Practice. In a real fire, you may be blinded by smoke or disoriented and unable to navigate the home you’ve lived in for years so practice feeling your way out of the house in the dark or with your eyes closed. The plan should be practiced twice a year and revised if a family member has a change in health; especially one that causes even the slightest functional limitation involving hearing, vision, or mobility, for example.
Taking precautionary measures can greatly reduce your risk for a home fire. Therefore, it’s important to know where you’re vulnerable, in order to take corrective steps. For example, if anyone smokes in your home, always check for discarded smoking materials or dropped ashes, especially in or near bedding, clothing, mattresses or upholstered furniture as these are some of the materials most commonly ignited
Fire can be incredibly destructive, but that doesn’t mean you can’t prepare yourself. By taking the right steps (which includes having enough home insurance), you can help safeguard yourself, your family and your home.
We want to hear from our Extra Mile readers!
After reading this article, do you feel that your household is taking the proper precautions to prevent a fire and to know what to do if a fire does take place? Do you have any questions about home fire prevention that we didn’t answer?
Let us know in comments. And then check out these 10 fire hazards that could be lurking in your home (hint: do you own a clothes dryer?)