By Gordon Williams
There are lots of places in your home where a fire could start—the furnace or the clothes dryer or the electric wiring or the chimney. Still, Steve Goforth, assistant fire marshal for the Everett WA fire department, says half his organization’s responses are to fires in a single room—the kitchen.
Statistics from the National Fire Protection Assn confirm that when it comes to fires, your kitchen is the most dangerous room in your house.
The NFP, which works to prevent fires, says U.S fire departments respond to an average 170,000 kitchen fires per year. Those fires kill more than 500 people a year, injure nearly 5,500, and cause $1.2 billion a year in damage. “Cooking equipment was involved in almost half of all reported home fires,” says an NFPA fact sheet.
So why is this story appearing now? A glance at the calendar should answer that question. That NFPA fact sheet identifies Thanksgiving as “the peak day for home cooking fires.” The second worst day for kitchen fires, by the way, is the day before Thanksgiving, with Christmas Day coming in third.
One of the functions of the Everett fire marshal’s office is fire prevention, and Goforth has lots of advice on how to make sure none of those 170,000 kitchen fires is in your home.
His first piece of advice is to pay attention any time you are cooking anything. The leading cause of kitchen fires, he says, is unattended cooking. “People lead busy lives, so it is easy to get distracted when you are at the stove,” he says. “Maybe the phone rings or one of the kids calls you, and you stop paying attention to what is going on at the stove.”
It is common, he says, for fire units responding to a kitchen fire to be greeted by a chagrined homeowner who admits he or she forgot there was food on the stove until tonight’s meal caught fire. His easy-to-remember rule—to be followed any time you cook—is, “stand by your pan.” If you must leave the kitchen, turn the burner off.
When cooking, says Goforth, “Turn all pot handles toward the back of the stove.” Then you won’t have to worry about an accidental bump of the hand spilling something out of the pan. That can help prevent a fire and spare you from painful burns or scalds.
Keeping pot handles safely out of reach also prevents kids from reaching up and grabbing something that is cooking on the stove. Then again, says Goforth, you should never allow children to get close enough to a stove to touch anything hot. A good kitchen safety rule is to never let a child or a pet come within three feet of any hot surface while you are cooking,
And there is still more fire prevention advice. Keep anything that might catch fire—towels or curtains, for instance—far away from an open flame. Beware of clothing that might catch fire—like a bathrobe with loose flapping sleeves. Don’t cook when you are too tired to pay attention to what you are doing.
Since there is a risk of fire any time you are cooking—on Thanksgiving Day or any other day—plan ahead for dealing with it. Fire departments can extinguish even large fires, Goforth says, because they plan ahead and train. Some planning and training can help you manage the risk of fire in the kitchen.
You should know what to do if there is a fire. Most kitchen fires involve grease or hot oil. Your first reaction to a fire on the stove would be to pour water on it. But pouring water on burning grease could actually spread the flames, not extinguish them.
What you want to do is take away the oxygen the fire needs to burn. Do that by putting a lid over the top of the flaming pan. “Don’t slam the lid down on the pan,” he says. That could actually push more oxygen onto the fire. “Turn off the burner and slide the lid slowly across the top of the pan until it is completely covered,” Goforth says.
An alternative would be to smother the flames by pouring baking soda on the fire, if you have some close at hand.
Here, says Goforth, is where that planning ahead and training come into the picture. You would have a suitable pot lid and baking soda close by whenever you cook, because you know you would need them if there is a fire. Practice sliding a pot lid over a pot just so it becomes second nature. That way you won’t let the stress of an actual fire paralyze you.
When might you try to put a fire out yourself? In Goforth’s view, you would do that only if you had a fire extinguisher, had been trained in how to use it and—most critical—if the fire is small enough. Goforth defines a small fire as one that is no bigger than a waste basket. “And don’t ever let the fire get between you and your exit,” Goforth adds.
The safer course in nearly all cases is to get everyone to safety, close the front door to keep flames from spreading and then call the fire department. “The most important thing in a fire is that call to 911,” Goforth says. What looks like a small fire now could very quickly turn into something big and dangerous. “It is just amazing how a small fire can fill a normal-sized room in three minutes,” Goforth says.
Also keep in mind that in case of fire it isn’t only the flames you have to worry about. Even a small fire can produce dangerous amounts of smoke. “And smoke is the killer,” says Goforth. “It will get you before the fire.”
Goforth has a final bit of Thanksgiving Day advice. If you plan to deep-fry your turkey, do it outside and on a level surface. That will keep the fryer from tipping over and sending hot—possibly flaming—grease in your direction.
So remember, the Red Cross wants you to be safe, not a statistic, this Thanksgiving—or any time!