As the wildfires in Northern California blaze around us, we’re given an unwelcome reminder how much damage a quick-spreading fire can do. But did you know that approximately 90 percent of all wild fires are caused by people? In fact, a simple cigarette butt thrown out a car window, a campfire left smoldering, or a pile of burning trash or leaves can spark a blaze that causes widespread damage to our forests, landscape, cities, and homes.
Fires right inside our own homes are just as prominent a danger – or perhaps even more so. We have a home fire ignite every 10 seconds in the United States, and every minute a blaze grows enough to warrant calling the fire department. In fact, firefighters are called to about 374,000 residential fires every year in the U.S. according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Shockingly, an average of 13,000 men, women, and children lose their life to home fires every year in America, an average of one person every three hours.
Here are some other facts about fires in the home:
• Home fires account for almost 90 percent of all fire-related deaths.
• Tragically, every day, an average of 293 children are injured or burned in fires, and an average of one a day loses their life.
• In the event of a fire in the home, you only have about 30 seconds to escape before the statistics for smoke inhalation, severe burns, and injuries, or death become very high, with fires becoming all-consuming and inescapable.
• Every second counts in a fire and a well-rehearsed escape plan for your family very likely will save lives. However, 77 percent of families – more than three out of four – don’t have a fire evacuation plan that they’ve practiced.
• If you have working smoke alarms, your chances of perishing in a home fire are cut in half. Change those batteries!
• Of course, human life is the most precious loss, but the economic toll of home fires is catastrophic as well – about seven billion dollars a year.
Just like in the wild, we know the most common causes of fires within the home. Understanding these common causes – and simple measures to prevent them – can keep your family safe.
According to the National Fire Prevention Association, the top causes of preventable home fires include:
1. Cooking and kitchen fires.
According to the NFPA, up to 40% of all home fires start in the kitchen. But, interestingly, kitchen fires don’t have a high fatality rate since someone is usually present when the fire breaks out.
The majority of kitchen fires start because items like paper towels, pot holders, aprons, aerosol cans, recipe cards, etc. are too close to an open flame or hot burner. Additionally, grease builds up on stoves and ovens causes fires to ignite and spread quickly.
To stay safe: Always keep a three-foot buffer around a hot stove, never leave a hot stove unattended, and keep a small fire extinguisher in plain sight in the kitchen.
2. Children playing with fire.
Children are naturally curious about fire, and it’s normal for them to go through a phase when they experiment with it, often lighting things or playing with matches. While that's dangerous enough, too often, they get scared or panic once they see the flame spread, sometimes running away or throwing it aside, making it worse. Children are also scared about being caught and scolded by parents.
To stay safe: Educate your children about fire and teach them basic prevention and safety methods.
3. Smoking and cigarettes.
Smokers who fall asleep with lit cigarettes or fail to put them out adequately is a common cause of home fires. In fact, it used to be the #1 cause of home fires (but there’s been a slight decline in the number of smokers), but it still is the leading cause of home fire fatalities.
To stay safe: This one is obvious – don’t ever smoke in bed or while lying down on that comfy couch.
4. Portable heaters.
Portable heaters and other hot air appliances can be extremely dangerous, especially when people leave them on when they are not in the room. If they are too close to furniture, curtains, or even catch dust balls, they can easily ignite and cause fires.
To stay safe: Always turn off and unplug a heater before you leave the room.
While traditional wood burning fireplaces are not allowed per new building codes, they still are common in older homes. But they can also be the cause of home fires when sparks fly out of fireplaces not covered by a screen or embers travel out of the chimney and ignite a dry roof.
To stay safe: Consider a safer wood burning stove instead of a fireplace, but get your chimney cleaned if you do use one.
6. A screw or nail that pierces wiring.
A simple nail or screw put into the wall when hanging a picture, mirror, or other decoration can easily pass through the sheetrock and pierce exposed wires, especially in older homes that don’t have wall plates built in. Once a wire is even nicked, a nonstop electric current will be running inside of insulation behind a closed wall – a recipe for a smoldering blaze.
To stay safe: Use hangars than don’t pierce the wall or make sure you have safety wall plates over wiring.
7. Clothes dryers.
Too many house fires start in the clothes dryer, especially because people don't always clean out their dryer’s lint filter. But even if you’re diligent about cleaning it, debris can still collect in the dryer cabinet where the heating element sits, at the bottom or in the back of the machine where it’s not easily detected. The venting system is another place materials can spark or combust with heat to stay safe: Hire a professional to clean the dryer and venting thoroughly every 18-24 months.
8. Flammable products in the garage.
Garages are a hotbed for fire danger, thanks to old paint, sawdust, oily rags, paint thinner, combustible aerosols, and gasoline cans sitting unattended, as well as plenty of old rags, dry leaves, etc.
To stay safe: Make sure all products are cleaned off, properly capped, and stored safely – far away from water heaters or other potential heat sources.
Our lives (and homes) are filled with computers, televisions sets, video games systems, smartphones, and stereos, all heating up to surprising temperatures as they work. Some, like Apple computers and video game systems like Xbox or PlayStation, lack internal fans so they are notorious for heating up to the point where they can start a fire, especially if they are partially obstructed by papers, a blanket, bedding, a cabinet or wall, etc.
In total, electrical fires account for more than 50,000 home blazes a year, causing $1.5 billion in property damage.
To stay safe: Make sure your devices are ventilated, don’t overheat, are turned off periodically, and devices and cords are unobstructed.
10. Christmas trees and candles.
While many of us appreciate the warm glow of Christmas tree or holiday lights, they also can easily start a fire, especially when cheap electrical cords touch dry trees. Candles, as well, are a huge threat to start fires year round.
To stay safe: Use higher quality safety regulated tree and holiday lights, don’t leave them on overnight or when you’re not home, and make sure they are properly plugged in away from combustible materials.