Why COVID-19 raises the risk of kitchen fires

By Gordon Williams

A somewhat different version of this story appeared on this blog in November of 2018. It made the point that while fires can start in any room of your home, they are most likely to start in a single room — the kitchen. The article quoted Steve Goforth, assistant fire marshal for the Everett WA fire department, who said that fully half his organization’s responses were to kitchen fires.

The story ran in late November for a very good reason. The worst day of the year for kitchen fires is Thanksgiving Day. The second worst day for kitchen fires is the day before Thanksgiving.

So why is this story running now — a half year before Thanksgiving?  Because the lockdowns and quarantines imposed by the COVID-19 virus have raised dramatically the risk of a fire in your kitchen. It’s too soon to have statistics quantifying the danger, but common sense tells you the heightened risk is real.

Circumstances have forced most of us to have more meals — if not all meals — at home. That means more time at the stove, which is where kitchen fires typically begin. They often begin when we become distracted and focus on things other than what is cooking on the stove. Yet, with kids and spouses at home and underfoot, it can be hard to focus on matters at hand. You put something on the stove and then a child demands your attention, so you leave the kitchen.

First bit of advice from Goforth is to pay attention any time you are cooking anything. “Stand by your pan,” he says. “If you must leave the kitchen, turn the burner off.”

There is the risk that kids will run into the kitchen while you are cooking. Goforth says to “Turn all pot handles toward the back of the stove.” That will keep you, or anyone else, from knocking over a hot pot or pan. Never let kids get close enough to touch anything hot. Goforth advises making it a rule that kids are never to come within three feet of any hot surface while you are cooking.

Keep anything that might burn, such as towels or curtains, away from an open flame. Beware of clothing that might catch fire — a bathrobe with loose flapping sleeves for instance. One recent news story described a woman who was severely burned when she poured alcohol-based sanitizer on her hands while cooking. The sanitizer caught fire.

Know what to do if there is a fire in your kitchen.

First instinct is to pour water on the flames. But most kitchen fires involve oil or grease; pouring water on burning grease could spread the flames, not extinguish them. Instead, put the fire out by removing the oxygen it needs to burn.

Put a lid on it! [You do that by putting a lid over the top of the flaming pan.] “Don’t slam the lid down on the pan,” Goforth says. That could actually push more oxygen onto the fire. “Turn the burner off and slide the lid slowly across the top of the pan until it is completely covered,” he says.

Plan ahead by having a pot lid close by while you are cooking. You can also put out the fire by pouring baking soda over the flames. Keep a container of baking soda handy while you are cooking, just in case. Practice sliding the pot lid over a pan just so you feel comfortable doing it should there be a fire.

When should you try to put out a fire on your own, as opposed to dialing 911 and calling for help?

Goforth says to tackle it on your own only if you have a fire extinguisher, know how to use it and if the fire is small enough. A small fire in Goforth’s view is one no bigger than a waste basket.

Fires can double in size every 30 seconds. “It is just amazing how a small fire can fill a normal-sized room in three minutes,” Goforth says.

Before using the extinguisher, make sure you have a clear escape path. “Don’t ever let the fire get between you and the exit,” Goforth says. Also, you should know that the flames aren’t the only danger. Even a small fire can produce dangerous amounts of smoke. “And smoke is the killer,” Goforth says. “It will get you before the fire,”

Safest course most of the time is to let the professionals deal with the fire. Get everyone to safety, close doors to keep the flames from spreading, and call the fire department. “The most important thing in a fire is that call to 911,” Goforth says.

More on what to do before, during and after a home fire at RedCross.org.

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