The dangers of smoking, deep-fried turkey, and the everyday
fire risks facing American families
Knowing a few fire safety facts can help families prevent and effectively respond to the top fire hazards in the home. For example, did you know that fire departments nationwide responded to almost 1,600 cooking fires on Thanksgiving? How about the $13 million-dollar price tag associated with decoration fires on Halloween?
In the spirit of Fire Prevention Week—which was held during the week of October 9th in commemoration of the Great Chicago Fire—we take a look at the top five fire hazards in today’s homes, offering tips and fire safety facts that can keep people, pets, and property out of harm’s way.
1. Despite overall progress in reducing home fires, fire
safety facts show that cooking fires have remained steady
Much of what’s known about the top fire hazards in the home comes from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a Massachusetts-based nonprofit dedicated to reducing fire deaths and injuries. NFPA research shows that cooking equipment has causednearly half of all recent fires (and fire injuries) in family homes, apartments, and manufactured housing.
These fires typically begin when food or other cooking materials ignite. Nearly 3 in 5 of these ignitions begin on ranges or cooktops, causing nearly 9 out of 10 cooking-related fire deaths. But other key sources of heat contribute to the problem, including ovens, microwaves, hot plates, and grills.
Four factors contribute to most cooking-fire deaths:
Not keeping an eye on stovetops, ovens, and other cooking equipment
Placing flammable materials too close to heat
Improperly throwing out or disposing of hot material
Leaving heat-generating appliances on after cooking—or turning them on accidentally
Cooking isn’t the deadliest source of fire in the home. It does, however, lead the way in causing injuries, and these activities set an average of nearly 500 fires every day between 2012 and 2016. Even that figure doesn’t account for the more than 100,000 injuries caused by small, unreported fires.
NFPA’s fire safety facts on the subject show that while home fire deaths have fallen by nearly half since the 1980s, cooking fires are almost as common as they were 30 or 40 years ago. These fires peak during holidays like Thanksgiving, thanks in part to America’s dangerous love affair with the deep-fried turkey:
2. Heating takes second place among the top fire hazards in
the home—with electric heaters and fireplaces bearing much of the blame
It’s no surprise that the winter months see a disproportionately large share of space-heater and fireplace-related fires. There are almost as many heating fires in December, January, and February as there are in the other nine months of the year combined.
Fire safety facts show that failure to clean chimneys and other solid-fueled heating equipment caused more than 1 in 4 such fires. Nearly 9 in 10 of related deaths involve space heaters—portable or stationary models. NFPA illustrates the perils of home heating with a short message from “Dan Doofus,” who struggles to keep warm and safe at the same time:
There are other, less common sources of heating fires, including central heat, water heaters, and heat lamps. Combined, these devices start roughly 1 in 4 heating fires. While the number of home fires involving heating equipment has declined sharply since the early 2000s, fire departments still battled roughly 45,000 such blazes in 2016.
And careless use of space heaters is more than a fire risk: in homes or apartments with fire sprinkler systems installed, this extra heat can cause sprinklers to activate with no fire present.
3. Fire safety facts: electrical fires are the single-most-damaging
source of ignition
Wiring, lighting, cords, and plugs cause an average of 35,100 fires each year. Even though electrical fires rank third among the top fire hazards in the home, they account for the largest share of property damage. The US Fire Administration reports that home electrical fires were responsible for twice the dollar loss per fire than non-electrical fires. Defects, damage, and misuse of equipment such as circuit breakers or lights add up, leaving Americans with a $1.3 billion-dollar bill.
Like heating fires, electrical fires happen often in the winter. A sizable share of those fires—nearly 30%—begins in bedrooms and attics. About half of these fires first ignite electrical wire, cable insulation, or framing. And while most specific causes are unidentified, short-circuit arcs account for more than a third of these fires. Too much power running through electrical equipment can cause a high-temperature discharge that sets nearby materials alight.
Some common (and more specific) causes of home electrical fires include:
Faulty outlets and old appliances
Bulbs with wattages that are too high for the fixture
Misuse of extension cords
Wiring that can’t handle the demands of modern electrical devices
4. Smoking fires join the top fire hazards in the home as less
common—but extremely lethal—events
During 2013’s Fire Prevention Week, we noted that the deadliest fires involved smoking. Sadly, that’s still true. Smoking is the fourth-leading cause of unintentional fires and remains the leading cause of civilian deaths from home fires. In 2016—the last year recorded in NFPA’s 2018 report on home structure fires—smoking deaths remained almost as common as they were 13 years earlier.
More than 30 million adults in the United States smoke cigarettes. Although the rate declined sharply between 2005 and 2017—with a 30% reduction in the number of adults who partake—smoking fires still make up 1 in 20 home fires overall. Still, the numbers have declined sharply since 1980. The 16,500 smoking fires seen in 2016 were 77% lower than the 70,800 fires nearly 40 years ago.
Most households don’t allow smoking indoors and, as a result, an increasing number of smoking fires now take place outside. However, from 2007 to 2011, nearly 1 in 5 smoking fires started in a bedroom, and at least 35% took place in interior spaces. These incidents overwhelmingly claim the lives of people over the age of 45. By and large, the leading human factors contributing to these deaths and injuries are sleep, physical disability, and drug or alcohol impairment.
More than 10% of those fires involve medical oxygen. And because oxygen remains on clothes, in the hair, and on the body, individuals remain at risk even when separated from their tanks. The below video shows how such fires burn with frightening intensity:
5. Only 1 in 50 home fires begin with candles, but they
cause their fair share of harm
Electric lighting and flameless candles haven’t yet eliminated candles as a small but disproportionately harmful addition to the top fire hazards in the home. Candles still cause 23 home fires each day. That’s only a sliver—just 2%—of the overall number of residential fires. They’re still dangerous, though: NFPA’s fire safety facts show that they’ve caused 3% of recent home fire deaths, 4% of property damage, and a full 7% of injuries.
A third of candle fires begin in bedrooms. Sleeping with lit candles in the home contributes to roughly 1 in 10 such fires and 1 in 5 of the related deaths. Like heating fires, candle fires peak in the winter, with 12% starting in holiday decorations. In 2015, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission released this video showing how holiday decorations can quickly become fire hazards:
Smoke alarms and sensors may be homeowners’ and renters’
best ally against an out-of-control fire
Fire claims thousands of lives each year. But each of the top five fire hazards in the home can be managed or eliminated by taking a few common-sense steps. Chief among them: place working smoke alarms in your home. The risk of dying in a home fire declinesby half with these devices installed. In contrast, nearly 3 in 5 fire deaths from 2012-2016 occurred in properties without working smoke alarms.
There are two main types of standard smoke alarms: ionization and photoelectric. The former type detects smoke using a small amount of radioactive material, while the latter has a beam of light that’s interrupted by smoke. Photoelectric smoke detectors should not be placed near sources of steam; ionization smoke detectors shouldn’t be placed in areas where cooking particles are released (kitchens). Both mistakes can lead to false alarms.
When used with a monitored home security system, any one of these conditions will prompt a phone call from a professional tasked with contacting homeowners or, if necessary, emergency services, in addition to sending an alert to the owner’s devices.
Carbon monoxide sensors, on the other hand, can detect and alert you to hazards brought about from incomplete burning of substances ranging from wood to natural gas.
Common-sense preventive steps can greatly reduce the risks
posed by the top fire hazards in the home
With these fire safety facts in mind—and an understanding of the importance of smoke alarms and sensors—every homeowner and renter should take steps to combat the top fire hazards in their homes. We’d like to close this article with a few time-tested tips from the National Fire Protection Association and other leading fire prevention authorities:
Keep cooking and heating equipment clear of flammable materials—at least three feet—and don’t leave your stoves or space heaters unattended.
Try not to drink alcohol while cooking (or use extra caution if you do drink while cooking).
Shut off the source of heat before fighting any fires. Starve the fire of oxygen with a pan lid or by closing the oven. If you’re not sure that you can fight a small fire safely, don’t. Evacuate and call 911.
Make sure your fireplace has a screen, and have chimneys professionally cleaned and inspected once a year.
Practice good electrical hygiene. Don’t use extension cords as permanent wiring—and never use a plug strip or extension cord with a space heater. Don’t run two heat-producing appliances at the same time from the same outlet.
Periodically check for heat from plugs, cords, wall outlets, and faceplates, which may indicate the presence of an electrical problem. And don’t run cords under rugs or carpets, where they may get damaged.
Some specialized outlets—called ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) and arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs)—can shut off electricity when it becomes a hazard. Test those outlets monthly (and install them if your electrician recommends it).
Smoking is a leading cause of fires, and fires caused by smoking are the leading cause of fatalities. If you do smoke, use caution, attempt to smoke outside, and certainly keep lighters out of reach of children in a locked cabinet. Use an ashtray—and keep it clear of flammable materials. Don’t allow smoking where medical oxygen is used.
Keep battery-powered lighting available for emergencies (not candles). Keep candles clear of flammable materials and blow them out after leaving the room or before going to bed.
Install and maintain smoke detectors or smart smoke and heat sensors. Place detectors/sensors high, but not too close to where the wall and ceiling meet. Avoid putting them in kitchens or near any source of steam (such as showers), which may lead to false alarms.
A little caution, preparation, and common sense—with a little technological help—can help ensure that your family and property stay safe from fire.
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