House fires happen more frequently than we think in the United States. The majority of residential fires start from open flames, accidents, and cooking. With proper maintenance of your home and awareness of common dangers that can lead to a house fire, you can dramatically reduce your home’s risk of going up in flames. And since seven people die in a house fire every day, taking some simple steps now can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Where do most house fires start?
While a house fire can start anywhere in your home, certain rooms are more likely to spark a fire. Cooking remains the number one cause of fires within the home, representing 50% or more of all reported cases. Most of these fires occur during dinner time and are caused because the person cooking leaves the room. Those working in the kitchen need to be mindful of flammable items, keeping them at a safe distance from the stovetop and oven. And, if you need to leave the kitchen for any reason, it is best to turn off the stove and remove items from the heat source before you go. Further, all kitchens should be equipped with a functioning fire extinguisher, and all adults and children of a reasonable age should know how to operate the device in case it is needed.
An additional 7% of home fires start in the bedroom, and usually the master bedroom. In many cases, smokers fall asleep with lit cigarettes in their hand, which then leads to ash or the cigarette itself falling onto the bed, quickly igniting the sheets and blankets. As bedrooms are full of flammable items, fire can spread quite quickly.
The next probable location of a fire is the chimney, causing 6% of home fires. It is essential that homeowners have their chimneys cleaned annually, as dirty or blocked chimneys can quickly create a much larger fire when a fire starter or other item is lit in the fireplace. Soot residue should never be more than one-quarter inch thick. Chimney sweeps are professional chimney cleaners that come out to your home periodically to remove excess soot and debris. Homeowners can also look to clean their own chimneys provided that they can safely access the top of the chimney, and know how to use a chimney brush. If the roof is too dangerous to access, homeowners can use a bottoms-up approach, but need to understand that the soot and ask can easily make its way into the home when this method is used.
The living room is the source of approximately 4% of all house fires. The typical culprits include the fireplace, candles set out on the fireplace mantle or on tables throughout the room, faulty electronics and electrical wiring, and HVAC systems. Couches and curtains make living room fires one of the fast-spreading infernos, especially if the couch or curtains are placed near a baseboard heater or radiator. To prevent living room fires, fireplaces and your HVAC system should be inspected and cleaned regularly.
Only 3% of house fires start in the laundry room, but as these rooms are often located at the top of the stairs on an upper level, or in the basement of an older home, they can be quite dangerous. When a laundry room fire breaks out upstairs and the laundry room is ajar, the flames can quickly make their way into the hallway, blocking the path to safety. And as smoke rises, basement level laundry room fires can be equally dangerous as the fire quickly works its way higher. Excess dryer lint in the lint filter is the most common source of fires in laundry rooms. Vents and filters all need to be cleaned regularly.
The attic also poses a fire risk for your home. Often, homeowners will place items in the attic for storage, but may not frequently visit the space. This means that critters can access the area and make nests. While you may not realize that a fire could start in your attic, these areas above your home are highly susceptible to fires due to electrical wiring. When these exposed and damaged wires come into contact with rodent nests or other materials that have been stacked haphazardly throughout the room, it can have serious consequences. Any exposed wires in the attic should either be sealed or replaced.
The 7 most common causes of house fires
Now that you understand where most fires take place, the next step is to become aware of the most common causes of a house fire. Awareness and knowledge is a critical component to staying safe and ensuring you are mindful of risks. With our precious families and our valued possessions at risk, preparing for the worst and hoping for the best is a wise strategy.
- Cooking fires – Open flames from the stovetop and high heat from the oven can easily and swiftly result in a fire when left unsupervised. In most cases, a dish towel or cooking item that catches fire, and the person in the kitchen can quickly lose control of the situation. Since giving up cooking is not the solution here, it is possible to effectively create a safe kitchen space with a place for everything and everything in its place, which in turn will present less of a fire risk.
- Smoking-related fires – While smoking-related fires are not the most common house fire, they are the most common cause of fire-related deaths. In fact, one in every 31 home-smoking related fires results in death. And sadly, the 1,000 victims each year are not just smokers who fell asleep with a lit cigarette in hand but children, pets, and other innocent family members sleeping elsewhere in the home. In many cases, these fires are caused by someone smoking on a balcony where hot ash blows into a nearby tree, sending the tree up in flames and the fire makes its way back to the house. Bedroom and living rooms fires are also commonly caused by cigarette and other smoking-related habits.
- Christmas tree fires – Every holiday season, both real and artificial trees pose fire risks. Real trees, in particular, can be very dangerous if they are not properly watered, as the dry fronds on the branches are highly susceptible to fire once Christmas tree lights are wrapped around them. On top of that, the paper on the gifts under the tree can quickly ignite, and the fire can race towards furniture, curtains, and other flammable items. Another vital strategy is to turn off Christmas lights before you retire to your bedroom each evening. And, while most artificial trees are safer than real trees, they can still be dangerous especially if an old or damaged Christmas light cord is wrapped around it.
- Candle fires – According to the American Red Cross, more than half of candle home fires start because the homeowner placed the candle too close to combustible material. Candle fires frequently start when items such as mattresses, curtains, bedding, cabinetry, or other furniture-items are ignited. Candles should be kept a minimum of 12 inches from these items. Also, always extinguish candles before vacating the room or going to bed at night. Carefully blow out or properly extinguish candles with a snuffer. Candleholders should be sturdy and placed on flat surfaces so that they will not tip over easily. And, while it seems obvious, make sure that candle holders are made from fire-safe materials. If you have young children or pets in your home, it is best to refrain from candle use, or keep candles high and placed far from a child’s reach.
- Appliance fires – Today’s homes are filled with more electronic devices than ever. From DVD players to flat screen television to video gaming consoles and systems, and more, our electrical outlets are often overflowing and our entertainment centers have spider webs of electrical cords behind them. Common household appliances that are most associated with house fires include clothes dryers, dishwashers, microwaves, refrigerators, and toaster ovens. Toasters and toaster ovens, in particular, need to be cleaned frequently to remove crumbs that often collect on the bottom.
- Heater fires – Electric radiators and heaters can lead to a fire in some cases, usually because the portable heater or radiator is located too close to flammable material, or because the chimney is exceptionally dirty. Radiators on their own are not likely to start a fire, however, in many cases, homeowners treat radiators like a piece of furniture and set papers, plants, or other items on top. In this case, the heat from the radiator can create a fire when exposed to these highly flammable items. To reduce the risk of fire or burn, keep electric radiators and heaters in good condition. If the unit sustains damage for some reason, it should be turned off and then inspected by a licensed HVAC technician. Damage can negatively affect the wiring of the heating units and can thus cause an electrical short which in turn can lead to a fire. In the least, your home’s heating system should be inspected annually so that it stays in good working order.
- Children and fire don’t mix – Unfortunately, children cause fires every year either by accident or out of curiosity. Playing with matches and lighters and candles led to an estimated 56,000+ fires between 2005 and 2009 alone. And, the trend continues to this day. As such, parents need to teach children about the risks of fire and should ensure children know what to do in the event of a house fire. A great way to teach children about house fire safety is during a family fire prevention plan meeting.
General fire safety tips
There are several tips that families can follow to lessen their risks of house fire, and to ensure that family members are well prepared in the event a fire does break out. As mentioned earlier, the most important method is for families to develop a family fire prevention plan, which serves as an escape plan in the event of a fire. This exercise will help ensure family members know how to escape the fire, know how to assemble and use a fire escape ladder properly, as well as how to use a fire extinguisher.
- Maintain and regularly test your smoke alarms. Select a date each year in which to replace the batteries in your smoke detector. Whatever the date is, select the date and mark the date on your yearly calendar so that you do not forget to change the batteries. In addition, be sure to test the batteries once per month.
- Replace appliances before something goes wrong. If you notice that your appliance is starting to work less efficiently or effectively as it did before, it means you may need a repair or replacement.
- Don’t use water to put out a grease fire. Instead, use your fire extinguisher, cover the flame with the lid to a large pan, turn off the heat source, or pour baking soda over the fire.
- Store matches, lighters, and candles out of the reach of children.
- Gently blow out or use a candle snuffer to extinguish candles.
- Don’t use candles during a power outage. Rely on flashlights instead and keep flashlights strategically placed throughout the home so that they can be easily located if needed.
- Clean dryer lint out of the lint trap on your dryer after every load of laundry. Additionally, inspect your dryer ducts each year. If you have annual maintenance performed by a plumber or certified HVAC technician, make sure that this service is included.
- Unplug toasters and other small appliances after each use.
- Contact an electrician if you have concerns about your wiring or if you have noticed damage to your home wires.
- Select the right extension cord for the job by making sure the cord can handle the load that you require. Do not use indoor cords outdoors.
- Do not store anything in your microwave.
- Avoid running an appliance, such as the dishwasher, washing machine, or dryer when you’re not home. This can also help in the event of a water line break, as it will be far easier to detect the problem and stop the spread of further damage if you can address the situation right away.
The more informed you are, the better you will be able to act diligently to both prevent a fire, or know what to do in the event a fire breaks out.