There’s a terrific article on kitchen fires and a variety of innovative fire prevention devices that can be used in the kitchen on Laurie Burke’s excellent Kitchen Design Notes blog. It’s a rather comprehensive look at the number one cause of home fires and ways to prevent them, and I highly recommend that everyone read it. Especially look at the first video, which shows very graphically how quickly a fire can spread, and the effects of various methods of attempting to put them out. That video is hands down the best I’ve ever seen for consumers about how to deal with kitchen fires – and how quickly they spread.
Watching the video sent me into flashbacks, though, I have to tell you! I had a kitchen fire myself a few years ago that started when I accidentally turned on the wrong burner when I went to heat water for tea. I had gotten lazy about putting away my pots and pans, so there was one sitting on every burner – and a plastic microwave food cover on top of the one on the burner behind the one I *thought* I was turning on. That, of course, was the burner I actually did turn on – and the whole thing went up in flames when the plastic heated up.
All I can say is thank God for my smoke detector, since I was in another room.
You can’t imagine how terrifying it is to go into your kitchen and see flames reaching to the ceiling, and the room filled with smoke, even when expecting at least some smoke.
Thank God I’ve always kept a fire extinguisher in the kitchen – and for my paramedic background and working so much with fire departments, because I knew to aim it at the base of the flames, not to use water, etc.
There are a couple of things the video did not emphasize enough, in my opinion, or even address, so I’m going to mention them here. Following that, I’m going to discuss electric fires in the home. Kitchen fires are the number one cause of housefires, and electric fires are high up the list as well, so it’s useful to discuss both together.
Additional fire safety tips:
1. The one thing the video really does not emphasize enough is not to fool around repeatedly trying to put the fire out if you can’t get it out right away when you discover it, regardless of the cause. Precisely because the flames can spread so quickly, you could easily get trapped and badly burned or killed by flames – and smoke inhalation is actually the most frequent cause of fire fatalities in the home. So get out of the house ASAP, and call for help from outside or a neighbor’s.
Some fires can be fought more readily than others, too, so here are some tips on how to decide whether or not to try to fight it yourself, and more about how to do so safely if you decide to – and when not to even try.
2. And get out even if you think you’ve gotten the fire completely put out, if it’s gone beyond the confines of the actual pan, or if you don’t know the source. Call the fire department anyways, and stay out until they clear you to return.
Once a fire gets going like they showed in the video, it can also damage the wiring to the stove, hood, overhead microwave, etc., and that alone can result in reignition and further fire damage, even once the initial flames are out.
3. Inspect your fire extinguisher at least once a month, according to the manufacturer’s instructions. You can also take it to your local fire station to have it inspected, which is also an excellent idea to ensure that there is no damage such as corrosion that could cause it to fail. Further information on care and maintenance can be found here.
4. Never, ever reuse a fire extinguisher, unless you have it professionally recharged. Even if you haven’t fully used it up, there may not be enough powder or pressure left to put out another fire, and the time you waste in trying to get it to work could cost you your life. You can have some of them recharged, or you can replace it.
They’re inexpensive – don’t stint on this. It’s not worth it – believe me. I was lazy about replacing mine after using it on some burning food in my oven at one point despite knowing better – and it initially failed when my kitchen really caught fire. I was fortunate that it finally worked and did put out the fire, but it was a very close call, and those wasted moments trying to get it to work and the added panic it caused me could have cost me my whole house.
5. Never stand a fire extinguisher up on end. Lay it down on the floor, or attach it to a wall or cabinet. The reason is that the contents are under pressure, and if the cylinder falls over and the valve is damaged, at best it will damage the extinguisher and render it useless, but it could also cause it to actually explode, and at minimum, cause the valve assembly to blow off with great force, which by itself could cause a lot of damage or injury. The article in the link is about a recall for this hazard in 1991, but any tank of pressurized gas or powder that sustains damage to its valve assembly can also go off like a rocket like this. It’s a hazard that is well known to scuba divers, and to anyone who works with any kind of compressed gas. Even if that doesn’t happen, a damaged valve may malfunction and result in the fire extinguisher not working when you need it.
6. Your best bet for most home uses is to have a dry chemical ABC fire extinguisher, which is usable on all types of fires. BC extinguishers like a couple of the ones shown on the video will not work well on paper, wood, and other ordinary combustibles like cardboard and plastics, all of which are often involved in fires in addition to the grease they featured in the video. A complete explanation of different types of fire extinguishers, ratings, and what each of the ABCD categories refer to can be found on the Fire Extinguisher 101 website.
7. Keep the fire extinguisher near a door, where you can reach it easily. Do not keep it on the stovetop, or tucked inside a cabinet, as you will not be able to reach it in the event of a stove fire.
8. Keep fire extinguishers in other rooms in addition to the kitchen, particularly in utility spaces such as laundry rooms and garages which can be sources of high fire danger.
9. Keep combustibles away from sources of heat and flame. That means no curtains next to the stove, or piles of paper, and no lit candles or open fires next to curtains or the like.
10. Don’t leave your cooking unattended, or other sources of flame such as candles and fires in the fireplace.
11. Make sure you also have a fire extinguisher (also ABC) accessible in your car.
12. Make sure you have smoke detectors, and test them regularly. Even if you have a hard-wired alarm system, as I do, you may not be able to rely on that. Call you alarm company periodically and check to be sure that they have the current phone numbers for your local fire dispatch or department.
My company for some reason didn’t have the current number, so when the fire set off my alarm, the company couldn’t reach fire dispatch. They kept calling me instead, which of course was useless. Even though I live directly up the hill from my local station, and it shouldn’t have taken more than 4-6 minutes for them to get to my house, it took 15 minutes to finally get them up here – and I had to call them myself ultimately, once I realized they were not coming as expected. If the house had caught fire, it could have burned to the ground by then, and would have certainly already been fully involved and not salvageable.
Now, speaking of the wiring burning, in addition to kitchen fires, electrical fires are among the top causes of housefires. These have a variety of causes including faulty appliances, old, defective wiring, poor maintenance, electrical system failure of various sorts – and overloading the circuits. According to the BSafe Electrix website’s excellent list of facts about electrical fires, some of the issues include:
– Wiring problems in the home result in 67,800 fires, 485 deaths, and $868,000,000 in annual property losses.
– A disproportionate number of electrical fires occurring in structures 40 years old or older.
– Children under 5 are twice as likely to die in house fires as anyone else.
– Dormitory, fraternity and sorority house fires number 1,500 annually, resulting in 75 fatalities and injuries, and causing property losses of $9,100,000.We’ve all been in houses where you can’t run both a hairdryer and the toaster at the same time without blowing the fuses. This sort of thing is an indicator of overloaded circuits, and it is invariably inconvenient.
We’ve all been in houses where you can’t run a hairdryer and a portable electric heater or toaster at the same time, and attempts to do so result in instant blackouts as the fuses blow. Certainly, this sort of thing is inconvenient and annoying.
What most people don’t realize, however, is that it’s also a tremendous fire hazard. Modern building codes require the kitchen to have its own circuits, separate from the rest of the house, which helps prevent these kinds of problems, but there are still a lot of older buildings out there whose electrical systems have not been modernized, so these kinds of things happen much more often in those situations. Older buildings just were not designed to handle the electrical loads we put on them these days, and unless major renovations are done, there is no requirement to bring them up to current code.
Even in a commercial situation, where building codes are even more stringent than they are in a residential setting, fires are often caused because of excess plug load (what gets plugged in) – which is also the number one cause of out of control electric bills in that setting, and excessive energy use. Tenants/employees have an amazing propensity to want to plug in all kinds of extra things like table lamps, portable electric heaters, chargers for handheld electronics, etc. that designers, architects, and engineers typically do not even consider when designing the space and the electrical system. Wise employers will limit or prohibit employees from plugging in all kinds of extraneous equipment, which will decrease both their expenses and their fire risks. A good designer will query you closely about your need for things of this nature and take them into consideration in the design, but particularly in a commercial setting, it’s not always possible to speak to every user of the building, so the electrical system is usually designed to handle what is built in plus the minimum number of required additional outlets and circuits, without regard to individual usage patterns or desires.
Another major cause of electrical fires is that over time, the connections inside the plugs, light switches, and junction boxes can come loose, and the resulting arcing of current when it runs through the wires can cause melting and ignition of the wires themselves, as well as the surrounding building materials. Ideally, wiring should be inspected annually to try to spot these hazards before they cause trouble.
Homes that are built with aluminum wiring are at particularly high risk of fire, as aluminum can’t handle the loads as well as copper can. If the aluminum wiring has copper pigtails, the wirenuts that are used to connect the two materials can come loose over time, and the gel inside them that prevents the aluminum and copper from coming into direct contact with one another can dry up. When that happens, the Al/Cu interaction generates heat – and will cause a fire if not caught quickly. Because these things happen inside the walls, they usually are not discovered until the fire breaks out. The fire/heat/melting can travel through the walls and by the time it breaks through the walls, the whole house can go up in an instant like a fireball.
Again, I learned about Al/Cu wiring and the connectors, as well as the arcing issue, the hard way – through experience. I was lucky, though. The near-fire started in a light switch in the kitchen (just by chance) – and also just by chance, I happened to still be awake, and found it when I went to turn off the light on my way to bed. Thank God I’m a night person, because this was at 1:30 in the morning. If I’d have been asleep, I’d have likely died in my bed.
The cure for this problem is to ideally completely rewire the house with all copper wiring, but given that that is often cost-prohibitive and typically will require tearing out a lot of walls and more, the most practical solution for most people is to replace all of the wirenuts in the entire residence with new ones that meet current code, or ideally to install Copalum crimping. You can find everything you ever wanted or needed to know about aluminum wiring, its hazards, and mitigation of them at the Aluminum Wiring Information Website.
I warned my homeowner’s association about this issue, knowing that it could endanger our entire complex, but they wouldn’t listen. Sure enough, several years later, we had a major fire elsewhere in the complex that destroyed one townhouse and seriously damaged three others. In that case, the fire was caused by arcing due to loose connections – which would have likely been detected had the association required everyone to inspect and repair their wiring as I did following my own near-miss. In that case, the owner of the destroyed home where the fire started told me that her housekeeper was complaining that the vacuum cleaner wasn’t working in any of several outlets. She said that the fire suddenly burst through the walls like an explosion and spread so quickly that from the instant it started, right in front of them, they were barely able to get out of the house.