A fire can happen in a flash, catching you off guard and making it difficult to escape. Fortunately, knowledge of common fire hazards can improve your odds of preventing or surviving a home fire. Here are six common reasons house fire start, as well as what you can do to reduce your risk.
Most cooking fires are caused by people’s behavior, not appliance failure. A majority of these fires happen when people leave food cooking unattended on the stovetop. Other common mistakes include leaving burners or ovens on after cooking, leaving combustibles such as potholders too close to heat sources, and wearing loose-fitting sleeves near burners.
Unattended cooking is involved in almost two-thirds of reported cooking fires. The best way to prevent these fires is to closely supervise your cooking. Take extra care when frying or deep frying food or when cooking with oils, butter or other grease products, and clean up food spills or accumulated grease that could catch fire.
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. If you are building or renovating a home, consider installing sprinklers, especially in a high-risk area such as the kitchen.
Supplemental heating sources add warmth to a home, but they also add considerable fire risk. Most home heating fires are caused by failure to clean wood-burning devices, lack of proper clearance around space heaters, improper heater refueling, or simple human error.
Fireplaces are a popular home heating option. Although they lend beauty and atmosphere, their use also increases your fire risk. Use a fire screen or fireplace doors to contain sparks, and keep combustibles at least three feet away. Keep your fireplace clean, using appropriate tools and containers for the ashes and coals. Hire a professional to inspect the chimney annually and clean it as needed.
Smoking is one fire risk over which you have complete control. Careless abandonment or disposal of lighted tobacco products is a leading cause of home fires. Not only that, but more people die in fires started by smoking materials than in any other type of fire. And in homes where people smoke, there’s a greater chance that matches or lighters might be left where children could play with them, further increasing the risk of a fire.
Candles have become increasingly popular, whether to create atmosphere, to release fragrance, or to keep insects away. In recent years, the number of home fires caused by candles has tripled. Nearly 40% of candle fires started because candles were unattended or used improperly. If you use candles, set them up safely and extinguish them when you leave the room, even if only for a few minutes. And take precautions to never fall asleep while candles are lit.
Even in newer homes, increased demand from multiple appliances may strain a home’s electrical system and increase your fire risk. Be sure to consult a qualified, licensed electrician to evaluate your home’s electrical system or to assist you when you purchase, repair, or remodel a home. They can help you reduce electrical fire risks.
Also take note of certain warning signs that may indicate electrical problems that could cause a fire. Contact a licensed electrician if you notice dimming or flickering lights; outlets or switches that are hot to the touch or emit an acrid odor; discolored cords, outlets, and switch plates; or repeated blown fuses or tripped circuit breakers.
Since the 1970s, upholstered furniture fires have declined in part because of evolutionary changes in the materials used to make upholstered furniture. Nevertheless, upholstered seating may be one of the most dangerous items in the home because it contains foams and fillers that if ignited, burn rapidly, release tremendous heat, and produce toxic gases. Most fatal home fires involve the ignition of upholstered furniture. Be particularly careful when smoking around upholstered furniture and always keep portable heat sources at least three feet away.
When shopping for upholstered furniture, choose products that are designed to be more fire resistant. Look for furniture made under the Upholstered Furniture Action Council (UFAC) program, or furnishings that meet the requirements of California Bureau of Home Furnishings (CAL 117). 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.
Bedding fires caused by cigarettes have declined significantly over the last several years, in part because the Federal Mattress Flammability Standard mandates that mattresses be made from safer materials. However, there has also been a marked increase in bedding fires caused by small open flames such as candles, matches and lighters. In fact, most candle fires start in bedrooms. Don’t smoke in bed, and keep open flames such as candles, matches and lighters away from all beds.
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. To learn more about your risk for a house fire, take our assessment. And check out the Fire Sense guidebook to learn more about preventing, detecting and escaping home fires.