Most House Fires Are Caused By These 5 Things

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House fires are devastating and often could be avoided if the residents paid closer attention to what's going on in their home.

Whether you’re boiling water for a cup of tea or taking the chill off a room with a space heater, many of the ways we try to stay warm and cozy during the winter months also rank among the top causes for home structure fires.

U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 1.4 million fires in 2020, reported on average every 89 seconds, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Those fires caused 3,500 civilian deaths, 15,200 injuries and an estimated $21.9 billion in property damage.

“Cooking is by far the leading cause,” says Susan McKelvey, communications manager for the NFPA. “We live in a world where we’re all trying to do so many things at once. It’s easy to get distracted when something is on the stove.”

That also explains why Thanksgiving — with larger meals and more people in the house — ranks as the busiest day of the year for cooking fires, followed by Christmas Day and Eve.

Modern smoke alarms, especially the recommended hard-wired units, help alert everyone more quickly when mere seconds can save a life. “Today’s home fires burn faster than ever,” McKelvey said.

Why? More furnishings and household items are made from synthetic materials that burn faster and hotter. That uses up available oxygen more quickly, giving off toxic gases and particles that can damage lungs. More open floor plans also allow fires to spread more quickly. The window of time to get out of the house safely after an alarm goes off is only two to three minutes.

Here are the top five accidental causes of house fires and how to prevent them.

Cooking

Nearly half of home fires happen in the kitchen, and often can be traced to inattentive cooking.

Here’s how to keep safe:

  • Keep anything flammable (clothing, oven mitts, paper and cloth towels, food packaging and curtains) at least three feet from the stove.
  • If you leave the kitchen, turn off the stove until you return. If you have something in the oven, make sure you activate a loud kitchen timer or the one on your phone to remind you when food is done. You could also take an oven mitt or wooden spoon into another room with you as a reminder to check food in the oven.
  • Don’t use cooking appliances when you’re sleepy or tired.
  • Plan meals and menus carefully so you aren’t hurrying or doing too much at once.
  • Turn pan handles inward so they can’t be bumped by anyone walking by.
  • If you have small children, put tape on the floor to mark a three-foot danger zone. Keep them out of that area when the stove is on.

Heating

U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 48,530 fires involving heating equipment per year between 2014 and 2018. Heating equipment is the second-leading cause of home fires (14 percent) and the third-leading cause of home fire deaths and injuries (19 percent) in the U.S. In most cases, space heaters are the culprits.

Here are some tips for using space heaters wisely:

  • Don’t plug additional heat-producing appliances or devices into an outlet used for space heaters.
  • Keep anything potentially flammable, such as clothing, books or paper, at least three feet from a heater.
  • Turn off space heaters when you leave the room.
  • Read space heater operating instructions carefully and follow all safety precautions.

Electrical

Electrical fires can start when cords or appliances are compromised and electrical outlets overloaded. To prevent these hazards:

  • Major appliances (microwave, refrigerator and stove) should be plugged directly into wall outlets.
  • Keep electrical cords away from pets that might chew them.
  • Make sure electrical cords can’t be snagged or tripped over, causing an appliance to fall or break.
  • Never use an extension cord with a heat-producing appliance.

Candles

While candles can make a room cozy, it’s easy to forget about that open flame and the candle could tip over.

A better alternative? Battery-powered candles that flicker like a real flame. Some smell just as good as scented candles. Stock your home with flashlights and battery-operated lanterns instead of candles for power outages.

If you do choose open-flame candles:

  • Keep flames at least a foot from materials that could catch fire. Three of five candle fires engulf nearby objects such as paper, curtains, a blanket or clothing.
  • Don’t leave lighters or matches where children can reach them.
  • Never leave burning candles unattended.

Smoking

Fewer people smoke now, reducing the number of smoking-induced fires. And yet, the danger from discarded cigars, cigarettes and pipes that aren’t fully extinguished still exists.

If you smoke:

  • Limit smoking to the outdoors.
  • Dispose of butts and burned tobacco in an ashtray or other non-flammable container. Don’t flick them onto dry vegetation. Douse them in sand or water for extra precaution.
  • Don’t smoke near medical oxygen, which is flammable.

For more home safety tips, check the resources on the National Fire Protection Association website.

Lisa Meyers McClintick
Lisa Meyers McClintick is an award-winning Minnesota-based freelancer specializing in travel across the Upper Midwest and to national parks across the United States. She has been a longtime contributor to USA Today, Midwest Living magazine, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and also has written for Minnesota Monthly, TravelChannel.com and AAA publications. Her specialties include watching wildlife and birding, harvest travel, hands-on art and history, gardens and wildflowers, quirky small towns and scenic outdoors. She's a member of Society of American Travel Writers and Midwest Travel Journalists Association, which named her the 2019 Travel Writer of the Year. She's also an award-winning photographer and teaches workshops on memoir and creative writing, photography, travel, and creating sketchbooks and journals.