Following Might Save Your Home or Your Life: Fire Chief Reveals
Most Common Causes of Household Fires
by Russell E. Sanders, National Fire Protection
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During my 30-year fire-fighting career, I often responded to
home fires that caused less than $500 in property damage -- but
the occupants still died from smoke inhalation.
When I was chief of the Louisville, Kentucky, fire department,
we passed an ordinance requiring all homes to have smoke
detectors. Over the next three years, fire deaths dropped by
30%. The most common causes of household fires and how to
Cooking is the number-one cause of home fires. People often
worry about grease fires. These can be very dangerous -- but if
you don't panic, you can extinguish one easily by sliding a lid
over the flaming pan and turning off the heat.
Caution: Do not use baking soda, flour or salt to try to smother
the flames. It can cause the fire to flare and burn you. Don't
use a fire extinguisher. It may send the burning grease out of
the pan onto towels, curtains, cabinets, etc.
Another danger is unattended cooking. Someone may turn on the
stove to simmer a pot of stew or soup, then take a nap or run
errands. The contents start to burn, and the flames ignite
Example: Bean soup seemed to be popular when I was a new
firefighter in the 1960s. We could smell it blocks away when it
burned and caused a house fire.
Stay safe: Never leave the house when something is cooking. You
could be delayed -- and your house could burn to the ground
before you get home. When preparing slow-cooking foods, set a
timer for 15- or 30-minute intervals. This will remind you to
check the stove.
Fires caused by cigarettes, pipes and cigars are among the
deadliest. Smokers fall asleep and drop them -- and don't wake
up when the fire starts. People also dump ashtrays in the trash
without making sure that the butts are completely extinguished.
Stay safe: Never smoke in bed, especially if you have been
drinking alcohol. Always extinguish smoking materials completely
-- don't just give them a quick stub in the ashtray. Run water
over ashtray contents before throwing them away.
Better still, quit the habit -- or at least don't smoke in the
There are more than 14,000 clothes-dryer fires each year. The
number-one cause is lack of maintenance -- lint collects and
Another cause is stacking laundry or other combustibles near the
dryer, especially around gas dryers that have open flames.
Stay safe: Clean the dryer filter after every use. Once a year,
detach the hosing from the back of the machine and clean it.
Keep combustibles three feet or more from any heat-generating
equipment, including dryers... electric, gas and kerosene
heaters... furnaces... and water heaters.
Candles cause more than 12,000 home fires annually. About half
of those fires start in a bedroom. A burning candle can fall
over and set fire to furniture, curtains, carpets or other
Stay safe: Put candles in sturdy holders that won't tip over.
Don't assume that a candle in a glass holder is safe. The glass
might break. Clear the surrounding area of flammable objects.
Blow out candles before leaving the room or going to sleep.
People often assume that most electrical fires start inside the
walls. While it can happen when wiring is old or improperly
installed, visible wires usually cause the trouble.
Example: When inspecting homes after fires, I often saw an
unbelievable arrangement of tangled extension cords -- sometimes
eight lamps or appliances were plugged into a single outlet. The
overheated wires sparked the fire.
Stay safe: Don't use more than one extension cord per outlet.
Only use cords with a testing laboratory label attached -- this
means that safety professionals have determined that the cord is
safe for its intended use.
When using power tools or appliances, check the manuals for the
proper extension cord size to use.
Never run extension cords under carpets or rugs. Pressure from
walking can fray wires and cause them to spark.
Gasoline fumes are more combustible than the gasoline itself.
Unvented vapors can be ignited by a source that is a long
distance from the actual fuel.
One of the worst fires I ever saw occurred when a man brought
his motorcycle into the house and was cleaning it with gasoline.
The water heater ignited the vapors -- and both of his small
children died in the flames. That happened on Mother's Day in
the 1970s, and I will never forget it.
Stay safe: Gasoline and other flammable products, such as paint
thinner, should never be kept inside the house. Only use these
products for their intended purposes.
Example: Never use gasoline as a cleaning agent. Store rags that
have been used with a flammable product in a metal container
with a tight-fitting lid.
If you have a kerosene heater, don't store extra kerosene in the
house. And don't refill the heaters when they are hot or in use.
Spilled kerosene can spread a fire almost instantly.
Open doors and windows before using any flammable substance,
including paint, polyurethane and chemical cleaning agents.
Install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors all over the house,
certainly on every floor and especially in or near bedrooms.
People might think that they will wake up if they smell smoke --
but the carbon monoxide in smoke deepens sleep.
Keep fire extinguishers in the kitchen and garage. Purchase
extinguishers that are labeled "ABC." These put out common
household fires, including those involving wood, paper, gas and
electricity. Make sure that everyone in your family knows how to
Identify two exits from each room in the house whenever
possible. The whole family should practice exiting. Quiz your
children periodically to help them remember.
Helpful: Keep chain ladders in bedrooms on the second and third
floors. But be aware that these are too heavy for young children
to put in place.
Establish a meeting place -- in the yard or other safe location
outside the house -- where everyone should meet if there is a
I responded to one fire in which a mother got out of the house
through the front door. When she couldn't find her children
outside, she ran back in the house to find them. She died in the
fire, while her children were safe in the backyard.
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