Fire Prevention Week: House fire causes, your emergency plan, and more
If you’ve never dealt with the aftermath of a devastating home fire, the danger can feel worlds away. Nationwide statistics tell a different story though. They tell us to never let our guard down. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 26 percent of “the reported fires in 2016-2020 occurred in home structures,” while an alarming 75 percent of civilian fire deaths and an equal percentage of civilian fire injuries were caused by house fires. All together, during that same five year period, “US fire departments responded to an estimated average of 343,100 home structure fires per year.” To bring us further up to date, according to FEMA, the estimated home structure fires in 2021 was an increase to 353,500, and in 2023 so far, there’s been 1,138 “home fire fatalities reported by U.S. news media.”
Fire prevention is clearly worth investing in, in order to protect both your home and family. Fire Prevention Week, held every year around October 9th and created in remembrance of the Great Chicago Fire, is a great excuse to talk about this crucial topic.
In this article, first, we’ll establish common causes of house fires, along with how you can implement safety measures that will further protect your home. Then, we’ll discuss emergency escape plans for those unavoidable situations. And finally, we’ll talk about what you should do after a home fire.
Common house fire causes
Cooking is the top cause of home fires
According to FEMA, cooking is the number one cause of “home fires and home fire injuries,” with fire departments responding to over 192,000 cooking fires in 2020. These incidents led to over $465.4 million in property loss, over 300 injuries, and over 100 deaths. And it makes sense. After all, with gas stoves, you’re using an open flame indoors, and we’re not all Gordon Ramsey-level experts in the kitchen. So, safety has to be a top priority when it comes time to cook family dinner.
First, it’s best to stay in the kitchen while you’re actively “frying, grilling, boiling or broiling food,” says the National Safety Council. If you’re doing something a little less intense — for example, baking food — you should still check in regularly and use a timer. Basically every cellphone has some kind of free timer app on it.
The National Fire Protection Association has some additional fire safety rules when it comes to specifically cooking with oil. If you see smoke coming up from the pan, turn it off and “carefully remove the pan from the burner.” As the NFPA explains, “smoke is a danger sign that the oil is too hot.” Other tips include adding the food slowly and gently to avoid splattering, slowly heating oil to your desired cooking temperature, and, again, always staying in the kitchen when you’re cooking with oil. According to the NFPA, the top cause of kitchen fires is “unattended cooking.”
Let’s go back to FEMA, who has a few more cooking safety tips. When it comes to air fryers and instapots, plug them directly into the wall outlet, instead of a power strip. They also tell us to keep a few specific items away from your stove: wooden utensils, paper towels, curtains and your trusty oven mitts. Finally, turn your “pot handles toward the back of the stove.” Why? This way, it’s less likely that someone will walk by the stove and knock hot food or liquid all over the place (and possibly themselves).
Electrical fires, a safety checklist, and power strips
The National Fire Protection Association lists electrical as another potential cause for house fires. In fact, from 2016-2020, “electrical distribution or lighting equipment was the leading cause of home fire property damage.”
According to the NFPA’s electrical safety checklist, there’s a few warning signs that should prompt a call to your electrician. Watch out for “discolored or warm wall outlets” and “flickering or dimming lights,” and if you get a “tingling feeling when you touch an electrical appliance,” that’s a definite cause for concern. Watch for sparks coming from outlets, as well. Lastly, you shouldn’t be blowing fuses or tripping your circuit breakers on a regular basis, especially if you’re not doing anything out of the ordinary. If this happens, be sure to call a QUALIFIED electrician.
Beyond these warning signs, the NFPA provides some more tips for avoiding electrical house fires. When it comes to “heat-producing” appliances, “such as a coffee maker, toaster, space heater, etc.,” stick to one per receptacle outlet at a time. Also, they state that you shouldn’t use extension cords or powerstrips for major appliances like “refrigerators, dryers, washers, stoves, air conditioners, microwave ovens, etc..” In general, using electrical cords and powerstrips incorrectly are a major problem. From 2016-2020, “electrical wiring and cable insulation accounted for 5 percent of all the home fires and 4 percent of all the home fire deaths” while “cords or plugs were involved in only 1 percent of the fires but 6 percent of the deaths.” The study goes on to say that extension cords were a large part of this “cord or plug category.” In other words, take this advice seriously.
In other areas, if you’re replacing a light bulb, do your best to match the bulb with the recommended wattage listed on your lamp or overhead fixture. If you’re not sure, keep the instructions for all your lights! The information should be listed in there.
Heat your home safely
Another major cause of house fires comes from an obvious source: heating your home! According to the NFPA, between 2016-2020, heating equipment caused 13% of house fires and 18% of house fire deaths. While water heaters and furnaces can certainly cause home fires, it’s important to note that many of these fire-related deaths are related to “fixed and portable space heaters, including wood stoves,” says the Red Cross. Compounding this issue is the fact that “nearly half of American families” use these alternative heating sources to stay warm throughout the colder seasons.
Luckily, the Red Cross also provides us with some great fire prevention tips related to space heaters and other alternative heating sources. First, you should keep any potential fuel (think “paper, clothing, bedding or rugs”) more than 3 feet away from your space heater or fireplace. If you’re using a space heater, make sure it’s on a “level, hard and nonflammable surface.” Do NOT put it on a rug or carpet.
Do not leave these alternate heating sources unattended and make sure “any embers in the fireplace are extinguished before going to bed or leaving home.” When buying a space heater, make sure it has the “automatic shut-off” feature: it turns off when it falls over. And finally, just like with major appliances, don’t plug a space heater into a powerstrip or extension cord.
According to FEMA, there’s a couple simple tips when it comes to avoiding furnace-related fires. First, you should have your furnace maintained and inspected yearly by a professional. The price range of that yearly tune-up could range anywhere from $100-$400, depending on what kind of repairs you need to make. In addition, as with space heaters, you’ll want to keep any potential fuel away from your furnace.
Make sure to check out FEMA’s entire guide to home heating safety. There’s plenty more tips in there that we won’t discuss here (like how you should never heat your home with an oven).
Get your emergency escape plan in order
No matter what fire prevention source you look at, these tips are always paired with an escape plan. After all, some accidents are simply unavoidable.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, you’ll want to install “smoke alarms in every sleeping room, outside each sleeping area and on every level of the home.” If possible, install interconnected smoke alarms (when one beeps, they all beep). Having smoke alarms on every floor is especially critical: in those cases, the alarms sounded during 37% of fires and alerted residents in 15% of fires; in cases where “smoke alarms were not on all floors, they sounded in only 4% of the fires and alerted occupants in only 2%.” That’s a startling difference when thinking about your home fire alarm system setup.
Here’s some other general tips from the NFPA in regard to an escape plan: 1) make sure all escape routes are completely clear and that “doors and windows can be opened easily”; 2) make sure your house number is visible for the fire department; and 3) once you get out of the house, stay out of the house, and let the fire personnel rescue anyone in need.
House fire aftermath. What should I do next?
First and foremost, you need to take care of your loved ones. You’ll need support throughout this process from your immediate and extended family and friends. The Red Cross and Salvation Army can assist with temporary housing, food, clothing, and medicine.
You’ll also want to contact your insurance company and open a claim immediately. You’re required to report the damage and, surprising to some, you’re responsible for preventing further damage to the property. Make sure you board up any broken windows and put a tarp on damaged portions of the roof. Please be extremely careful if you’re doing any of this maintenance on your own. Do not move or throw anything away as this is evidence to support your future claim.
Read our previous article about what you should do after a home fire for more tips.
Eventually, you may need assistance dealing with house fire insurance, as they’ll attempt to undersell your home damages. That’s why calling (814) 882-7797, (216) 208-2294, (571) 448-1325, (412) 996-9117 Disaster Recovery Adjusters should be on your to-do list. We’re your advocates in this relationship with the insurance company, analyzing your home and presenting evidence that will help increase your eventual payout. In one instance, founder Jeremy Wiseman was fighting on behalf of someone who experienced smoke-related damages. After a long battle with the insurance company, our customer’s claim went from $90K to $215K. Each situation is obviously different and we can’t guarantee that large a payout, but we can fight on your behalf.
Don’t deal with this alone. Let us take care of you.
Fire prevention: Keep your home safe
You now know the major causes of house fires, you have some necessary prevention tips, and you have the start of your emergency plan. Take fire prevention seriously. And if you have a home fire, know that Disaster Recovery Adjusters is just a phone call away.
Visit the Fire Prevention Week website for more tools and tips.