Don’t Go Down in Flames

19 Sep 2013

Many house fires are preventable. Here are ways to keep your family safe from flames.

By Maria Martin Photos courtesy City of Boulder Fire Rescue  It’s probably no surprise that most home fires start in the kitchen, given that it houses the appliances that heat things up. But the source of most of those fires isn’t the cake Grandma forgot in the oven, or the pizza Dad burned in the microwave. It’s grease, pure and simple, that causes the most damage. fire1   People often panic and make a common mistake when a grease fire flares in a pan on their stove: “They throw water on it, and that’s the worst thing to do,” says David Lowrey, fire marshal for the city of Boulder. “If you can safely shut off the burner and get a lid on the pan, that’s best.” Throw water on grease and it’ll explode, potentially causing nasty burns, says Jeff Webb, deputy chief of the Boulder Rural Fire Protection District. While water is verboten for a grease fire, that fire extinguisher everyone should have in the kitchen will do the trick. Look for an extinguisher that’s ABC compliant, Webb says. That rating ensures the flame retardant works on combustibles including paper, wood, textiles, plastics, cooking liquids, oil, gasoline, kerosene, paint and live electrical equipment. Before using an extinguisher, Lowrey recommends memorizing the “PASS” acronym—Pull the pin. Aim the nozzle. Squeeze the trigger. Sweep the spray at the base of the flames.
In & Out    
Sparks from outdoor fire pits and barbecue grills are another cause for concern. In the city of Boulder, fire pits, chimineas and any other type of open burning are not allowed, Lowrey says. “It’s because of the backdrop we have; we’re too close to wild lands,” he says, noting it takes more than one damp season to help large trees and mature growth recover from pro­longed drought. “With such a fragile ecosystem, it doesn’t take much,” he adds. “And everyone needs to realize that even one ember can cause devastation. It’s no longer about a single individual—it’s about a community.” Webb, whose district includes Gunbarrel, Heatherwood and Niwot, says that while open-flame rules aren’t as stringent outside of the city, those who want to sit around a fire pit must still know the law. The pit, for example, must be on noncombustible construction, meaning concrete, not wood. And any open fire must be at least 25 feet from property lines. “If we hear complaints from your neighbors about smoke, we will ask you to put it out,” Webb says. Some outdoor fires also begin when smokers toss out lit cigarettes from automobiles. Snuff out cigarettes in a car ashtray. Both Webb and Lowrey stress the importance of having a fire-escape route. When smoke fills a house, it’s easy to get confused. So practicing a home evacuation with children ahead of time is essential. A fire can double in size in just 60 seconds, Webb says, so everyone in the family must know the best route out and have an established meeting place far from the house. When it comes to fire, the adage “better safe than sorry” is one to heed indeed. fire2
Alarming Situations
The National Fire Protection Association (, which tracks statistics on home fires, says ranges—with or without ovens—account for 58 percent of home structure fires every year. Unattended equipment is the leading cause of cooking fires, says Judy Comoletti, division manager for public education at NFPA. “Even if you leave the room for a second, shut off that stovetop,” she says. Be sure you have a smoke alarm on every floor and near every bedroom. Interconnect smoke alarms throughout the house so if one sounds, they all sound. And check batteries monthly to be sure they’re in working order. —M.M.
Fire-Prevention Tips
Fire officials offer the following advice regarding common ignition sources:
  • Prevent grease fires by staying close to the stove while frying or cooking, and always keep the pan’s lid nearby to smother flames. If a grease fire starts, extinguish it by first turning off the burner and then using an oven mitt to place a lid over the pan. If a lid isn’t nearby, grab a fire extinguisher, pull the pin, aim the nozzle, squeeze the trigger and sweep the spray at the base of the flames. If the fire isn’t out, or you can’t safely shut off the burner, evacuate and call 911.
  • To prevent oven fires, routinely clean the oven and never overfill baking pans. If a fire starts, turn off the oven and don’t open the oven door, which will feed the flames. Wait for the fire to go out. If it doesn’t, or grows in size, evacuate and call 911.
  • Candle fires are a year-round problem, but are more common during the holidays. Never leave a burning candle unattended or anywhere near drapes, small children or animals. Consider replacing real candles with battery-operated flameless varieties.
  • To prevent appliance fires, plug microwaves, toasters and other appliances directly into a wall socket or a power strip, never into an extension cord. Inspect electrical cords and replace any that are cracked or damaged, or have broken plugs or loose connections. Never use metal or foil in a microwave, and use only microwave-safe cookware. If a fire starts, unplug the appliance, if possible. As with a conventional oven, never open the door of a microwave if a fire is burning inside. If the toaster catches fire, use a fire extinguisher.
  • Don’t overload extension cords, and never place them under carpeting or pile things on top of them, which heats up the cord and can spark a fire.
  • Keep space heaters 3 feet away from anything, and turn them off when you leave the room or go to sleep. If you’re cold, throw on extra blankets.
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