House Fires: Common Causes And Prevention Tips
Lauren Nowacki13-MINUTE READ
June 18, 2021
Owning a home comes with several responsibilities, and keeping it safe is one of them. One of the biggest threats to your home is fire. House fires spread fast, and can swallow the structure in flames in as little as 5 minutes. In a short time, you can lose all of your belongings, including family heirlooms, your home, your pet and even your life. The point of this post isn’t to frighten you; it’s to empower you to create a safer place to live. Yes, house fires can be terrifying. But here’s the good news: Most of the time, they are also very preventable.
Education is key. Knowing the most common causes of house fires and how to prevent them is the first step, followed by taking the proper action. Here’s how you can take the right precautions to ensure each room in your home is protected to the best of your ability.
12 Common Causes Of House Fires (And How To Prevent Them)
As American homes rely more and more on electricity and technology, every room now has something that could be a potential hazard. Here are the most common causes of house fires and tips for making them less of a threat.
Let’s look at these common causes, along with others, a little more in depth.
1. Clothes Dryer
Lint isn’t just a nuisance for your black wardrobe – it’s also the leading cause of clothes dryer fires in the home.
“Dryer vent fires are usually caused by an electrical short sparking and igniting lint buildup inside of your dryer,” explains Rob Mathews, franchise owner of Mr. Appliance, a Neighborly company that offers appliance repair and servicing. “This fire then spreads into the vent tubing going through the walls or under the home.”
According to Mathews, removing this buildup will eliminate the flammable material that typically ignites during a short circuit. But there’s more to it than just cleaning your lint filter before each use, which you definitely should keep doing.
“It’s also imperative to clean the lint trap itself and along the edges of the trap,” says Mathews. “You should also remove the lint trap and clean the inside of the machine for any lint that got through the lint filter.”
Along with the machine itself, you should also pay attention to the dryer vent tubing that leads to the outside of your home. According to Mathews, it can create lint buildup in the walls of your home. The cleaning requires specialized equipment from a professional and should be performed once or twice each year.
2. Cooking Dangers
Cooking combines various heat sources – often fire – with highly flammable ingredients like oils, grease and alcohol, so it’s no surprise that many house fires happen in the kitchen.
“Cooking fires are the number one cause of home fires each year,” says Keith Simon, firefighter and paramedic for the Delaware City Fire Department and Risk Reduction Bureau.
And they are the most mobile, too. According to Simon, the fires that spread throughout the house start in the kitchen more than any other room.
One appliance often associated with cooking fires is the oven. A terrible cook is often depicted by an incredibly burnt meal or flames bursting out of an oven, but even the most experienced chef can experience an oven fire. While they can be intimidating, there are ways to avoid these fires.
Here are a few ways to prevent fires from happening in the oven or on the stovetop:
- Clean your oven. Before each use, be sure to remove any grease splatter, crumbs or other spillage.
- Prevent overflow. When baking with batter, place a large sheet beneath your baking pan to catch any overflow.
- Be present. When using the stovetop, stay in the kitchen and pay attention to your cooking.
- Keep your cooking area clear. Do not have any flammable objects like paper towels, oven mitts and other fabrics near where you’re cooking.
- Turn pan handles away from the edge of the stove. Be sure they aren’t sticking out where you can easily bump into them.
- Keep sleeves rolled up while cooking. You don’t want the fabric of the material to catch on fire.
- Know the smoking point of the oil or fat you’re using. It can range from 350˚– 450˚ Fahrenheit, and varies by type.
- Attach a thermometer. When deep-frying food, clip a thermometer into the skillet and monitor the temperature.
- Be ready. Have a few items ready and in reach in case a grease fire does occur, including a heavy metal lid, a cookie sheet, baking soda, table salt or a Class K fire extinguisher.
Another cooking appliance that is a common culprit of these fires is the microwave oven. Fires are often caused by metal items like foil, silverware, twist ties, or metal-edged bowls or plates, creating a spark inside the microwave. That’s why it’s important to make sure the container you’re using to heat your food is microwave safe. If it contains metal, it’s not microwave-safe.
If your microwave sparks even when there is no sign of metal, it could indicate that grease or food particles are blocking one of the vents or waveguides (the little holes in the microwave’s ceiling), according to Mathews. Keeping your microwave clean is the best way to prevent this from happening.
“You should always clean the appliance after use,” he suggests. “Regularly wipe down the interior with hot soapy water (ammonia can damage fan covers) or heat a bowl of water mixed with lemon juice, which gets rid of odors, too.”
If a fire does happen while you’re cooking or baking, it can be hard to remain calm. Just remember that there are some steps you can take to manage the fire and extinguish it. If a fire happens inside the microwave or oven, turn off the appliance immediately if you can and, most importantly, keep the door closed. By turning off the fans and keeping the doors closed, there will be no oxygen to feed the fire, which should stifle the flames.
If a grease fire occurs, take the following actions:
- Turn off the stove top, immediately if possible.
- Cover the pan with a heavy metal lid. Don’t use a glass or ceramic lid, as these materials can shatter. If you don’t have a lid, use a cookie sheet.
- Remove the pan from the burner, if possible.
- Pour baking soda or table salt directly over the fire if the grease fire is small. Do not use flour or baking powder because these ingredients are combustible. Never use water or any other liquid to try to put out a grease fire. It will cause the fire to spread rapidly.
- Use a Class K fire extinguisher, which is specifically designed to put out fires involving cooking oil, grease and fat. Only this type of extinguisher can be used for kitchen grease fires, according to Simon.
- Call for help. If flames are escaping from the oven, microwave or covered pan or the fire has spread, leave the home immediately and call 911.
3. Extension Cords
Extension cords are convenient, but they can be hazardous if they aren’t used properly.
“Extension cords should only be used on temporary time frames and should never replace permanent wiring,” says Simon. “Additionally, high-draw appliances like coffee pots, toasters and refrigerators should never be plugged into an extension cord or power strip. Such appliances should always be plugged directly into an electrical outlet.”
You should always use a certified extension cord that meets the power needs of the device you’re using and one that is the right kind of cord you need. For example, if you’re using it outside, make sure it’s an outdoor cord. Before plugging a device into an extension cord, check for damage, fraying or bare wires on both cords. If an extension cord feels hot, don’t use it.
Never run the cord through walls or ceilings or under rugs or carpeting. Doing so could cause it to overheat. Don’t shut the cords in doors or windows, and refrain from stapling or nailing the cord to any walls, or you could end up damaging the cord.
4. Electrical Outlets
Worn out or faulty electrical outlets are often to blame for electrical fires. Connections behind the outlet could overheat, causing a fire hazard. Check your outlets regularly for discoloration, cracks, looseness and corrosion. If the outlet is warm or shooting off sparks or there’s a burning smell, you could have faulty wiring.
Overloading your electrical outlets sends surges of electricity, overwhelming the internal wiring system, generating heat and igniting a fire. Most homes have built-in safety features, known as circuit breakers or fuses, that turn off the power when a circuit becomes overloaded. However, there are a few ways you can help prevent overloading too. Only plug one high-wattage appliance into an outlet at a time and use particular outlets for large appliances that require higher voltage, like washing machines and electric stoves. Learn about your circuits, too. Knowing which outlets connect to the same circuit will help keep you from running too many devices on one circuit, even if they are plugged into different outlets.
Along with faulty outlets and electrical overload, you also need to be mindful of human error – particularly tiny-human error.
Growing up, you may have heard warnings about sticking things in outlets. And if you chose to ignore those warnings, you may have learned that doing so can cause the outlet to spark. Young children may never stop being fascinated with sticking things in outlets, but there are ways you can prevent them from doing so. Use outlet plugs or covers to block outlet openings. There are also tamper-resistant (TR) outlets that will block anything that is stuck into the outlet unless it’s a two- or three-pronged plug. These safety devices also help prevent water from getting into the plug, which can cause corrosion.
Portable generators are used to provide temporary power when there is an outage, but they can also be the sources of fire. Follow these safety measures to keep your home safe:
- Directions are key. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Never refuel a generator while it’s hot. If you spill any fuel, it could ignite on the hot engine.
- Properly store. Store generator fuel in clearly labeled, non-glass containers outside of the home.
- Operate the generator on a hard, flat surface and keep it dry.
- Use the generator outside of the home, in an open space with plenty of ventilation.
Candles are great for ambiance, but they can be a danger for your home if you aren’t careful. When it comes to using candles, keep them at least 12 inches away from anything flammable, including tissue boxes, curtains, bedding and carpets. Position them away from edges and place them in a sturdy, heat-resistant candle holder. Never leave a burning candle unattended, and always blow out your candles before leaving the room or going to bed. You may even want to opt out of using candles altogether. During a power outage, use lanterns and flashlights as an alternative. If you’re using a candle simply for aesthetic reasons, consider using battery-operated candles instead.
7. Cigarettes, Cigars And E-Cigarettes
If you want to smoke in your home:
- Don’t smoke while lying down or in any other comfortable position that may cause you to nod off.
- Don’t smoke in your home if you feel sleepy or if you’ve had a few drinks. If you smoke outside, be mindful of where you toss your cigarettes, especially if it’s dry outside.
- Watch where you may throw cigarettes. Don’t throw them into leaf piles, dry grass or bushes.
- Use a proper ashtray. Whether in your home or outside, always use a deep, sturdy ashtray that’s made for cigarettes and cigars.
If you smoke e-cigarettes, be aware that there is still potential for fire or explosion, though it’s uncommon. Lithium-ion batteries in these devices are the leading causes of incidents, which most commonly occur while the device is in your pocket or being used, according to a 2016 study by the U.S. Fire Administration. While it’s unclear what exactly causes the battery to overheat or the device to malfunction, you can help prevent an incident by properly storing the device, charging it per the manufacturer’s instructions and never modifying it.
8. Space Heaters
Portable space heaters can add just the right amount of heat to a chilly room, but they should be used with caution. According to the National Fire Protections Association’s 2018 report on Home Fires Involving Heating Equipment, the second-leading cause of home fires is heating equipment like space heaters. When using a space heater, take the following precautions:
- Inspect the heater and its cords for damage before use.
- Never plug a space heater into an extension cord.
- Keep heaters on a flat, hard surface.
- Keep space heaters at least 3 feet from flammable objects.
- Never leave a space heater unattended while it’s on.
Fireplaces can be a nice room accessory and sometimes a bonus feature to include in your listing when selling your home. But for houses located in colder climates or regions that experience cold winters, they are often a necessity. When you use a fireplace, you literally host a fire in your house. To keep it safe and contained, take a few precautions before, during, and after each use.
- Clean often. Have your chimney cleaned regularly to prevent buildup that can restrict air supply or catch fire.
- Be sure the damper is opened. Before using your fireplace, make sure the damper is open. If it’s closed, it will send smoke billowing into your room and could cause a chimney fire.
- Always inspect the items you’re burning. Make sure there aren’t dangerous or explosive materials – like a small perfume bottle or battery – hiding in a box or pile of wrapping paper.
- Always use a fire screen to keep embers and logs from escaping. While the fireplace is in use, consider placing a nonflammable rug just outside the fireplace to catch any rogue sparks.
- Put out embers. When you’re done using the fireplace, make sure embers are completely extinguished before going to bed or leaving home.
- Let ashes cool. When disposing of ashes, allow them to cool completely. Coals can start a fire up to 3 days after they are put out, so it’s best to wait to remove them until after that time period.
- Store ashes. Once removed, the ashes should be placed in a metal container and then doused with water to ensure they are fully extinguished.
10. Heating Pads And Blankets
Heating pads and blankets may keep you warm and cozy, but they can also pose a risk.
“Defective, old or improperly used blankets and heating pads can result in fire,” says Craig Gjelsten, VP of Operations at Rainbow International, a Neighborly company that specializes in home and commercial fire damage restoration services.
To stay safe, Gjelsten recommends adhering to the manufacturer’s operating instructions and taking special care during and after each use.
“Do not place the cord between the mattress and box spring or in any location where it may be pinched or folded,” he suggests. “Avoid bunching, keeping the blanket or pad flat when in use.”
When it comes to caring for the device, Gjelsten recommends you “wash them carefully and take heed not to dry, iron or dry clean them,” he says. “Doing so can melt the heating wire insulation and increase fire risks.”
11. Air Conditioners
Air conditioning units are household staples in warm climates and can be dangerous if they aren’t maintained. Follow these tips to properly care for your air conditioning unit.
- Keep at least 2 feet of space around the unit clear.
- Remove debris like dirt, branches, feathers and leaves from the outdoor unit.
- Change your air conditioner’s air filter every 3 months.
- Have a professional inspect and clean your unit once a year.
High humidity (moisture in the air) can cause mold and odors, warp wood floors and make you sick. To help alleviate this issue, many people use portable dehumidifiers, which pull moisture from the air before releasing the air back into the room. While the risk is small, they have been known to catch fire due to manufacturer error and improper use by the consumer. When the issue is manufacturer error, the device will be recalled, so keep your eye out and don’t use your device if it’s been recalled.
Avoid consumer error by keeping your device clean and giving it an adequate amount of airflow when you use it. Place it on a level floor away from the walls, furniture or anything else that can block airflow. Don’t place anything on top of the device and never use it with an extension cord. Wipe down the device before each use, clean the filter at least once per month and empty the water collection bucket regularly.
Indoor Fire Safety Equipment
Fire prevention is key, but being prepared in the event a fire does break out is also important. Luckily, there are ways to outfit your home to reduce the risk of damage, injury and even death if there is a fire inside your home.
Smoke alarms provide an early warning that there is a fire, giving you the time you need to evacuate the house safely. They should be installed in every bedroom, outside of every sleeping area and on every level of the home. Test smoke alarms every month and replace the alarm every 10 years. People who are hard of hearing should install special smoke alarms that provide warning with strobe lights or bed shaking.
Fire extinguishers can put out small fires or contain larger ones, giving you enough time to escape. Choose a fire extinguisher that is easy to handle and can be used on all kinds of home fires. Once you get a fire extinguisher, read the instructions carefully so you’re able to use it at a moment’s notice.
Residential Fire Sprinklers
Also known as home sprinklers, residential sprinkler systems are gaining popularity in fire safety due in part to their impressive statistics. For example, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), 97% of fires that happened inside of homes with fire sprinklers were contained to the room where they originally started. The systems work by spraying water into every room where a fire is present. Activated only by the heat from a fire, residential sprinkler systems are environmentally friendly, easy to maintain and can be installed in new or existing homes. An added bonus? Home sprinklers could reduce your homeowners insurance premium, according to the NFPA.
Outdoor Fire Safety
Even outdoor activities can lead to a house fire. Follow these tips to prevent the most common causes of fires that start outdoors.
Clean and inspect your grill regularly to spot any grease buildup, damage or gas leaks. To test for gas leaks, put soapy water over the hose and look for bubbles, which indicate a leak. Only use your grill outdoors and at least 3 feet from your home. Never use your grill directly under trees, eaves or porch coverings. When lighting your grill, make sure you have the lid open. If the flame goes out, turn off the grill and wait at least 5 minutes before attempting to relight it.
Keep bonfire pits at least 5 feet from your home and review your state’s laws before you host a fire. Never have a bonfire in a dry area or during high winds. Always have a bucket of water or a hose nearby. Once the bonfire is over, make sure the fire is out and douse the embers with water. Never leave a bonfire unattended.
Keep plants, bushes and trees at least 5 feet from your home and trim any branches that hang over your house or deck. Clear out any dry leaves or dead plants from your deck, garden, gutters and roof.
The Bottom Line: House Fires Can Be Prevented By Safeguarding
Accidents happen. You can’t control that. But safeguarding your home against fire can help lessen the chance of them happening and help you feel safer in your home. A house is supposed to be enjoyed and lived in. Taking the right steps to protect your home will help you do just that.
Still interested in preventing house fires? Learn how home maintenance checks can help.
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