Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published in October 2015 but has been updated to reflect the latest information on fire prevention.
Every October, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) cooks up a theme for its annual fire prevention week. This year, the focus will be on “Serving Up Fire Safety in the Kitchen.”
Raising awareness on how to stay safe in the kitchen is not only the NFPA’s priority but also the HIG team’s mission, for many reasons.
- The kitchen is typically the most heavily trafficked room in everyone’s home.
- Almost half (44%) of reported home fires started in the kitchen.
- Cooking is the number one cause of home fires and home fire injuries.
Most importantly, we know that many kitchen fires can be prevented and providing information about kitchen safety can be the difference between a safe and enjoyable cooking experience or a tragedy.
What are the best fire safety practices when you’re in the kitchen and cooking?
We thought it would be very helpful to ask HIG’s Paul Burke this important question. Not only is Paul a longtime local insurance professional, a Certified Risk Manager (CRM), and an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), but he was also a volunteer firefighter for 35 years.
Paul is happy to share his knowledge on preventing kitchen fires, as well as some important tips on what to do in the event a fire does happen. While some of these insights may simply serve as good reminders for you and your loved ones, we have a feeling that a few of Paul’s Pointers will make you go, “Wow, I never thought of that as a fire risk!”
Paul’s five pointers on fire safety in the kitchen:
- Wash your hands with soap and water before you start cooking or get near a flame of any kind. While washing your hands before touching food may make total sense to you from a hygiene perspective, you may not see the connection with fire safety. That’s why we’re lucky to have Paul here to educate us on this critical pre-cooking step.
Thoroughly washing your hands prior to cooking is the best way to ensure that you restrongve all traces of alcohol-based gel sanitizer from your hands. The alcohol in hand sanitizer is flammable. So, if you get near an open flame with hands covered in hand sanitizer—whether it’s still wet from a fresh application or has dried on your hands—the sanitizer and your hand are very likely to ignite.
Who knew not washing your hands, or, even worse, applying hand sanitizer before you start cooking will put you and anyone near you at serious risk of injury? This hand washing principle applies, no matter what type of flame you are getting close to, whether you’re lighting a candle, throwing logs on the fireplace, or working the grill. Gel-based hand sanitizers are being used more and more frequently, so it is critical to remind your family members to wash up with soap and water before doing any of these and similar activities.
- Keep flammable objects away from anything in the kitchen that heats up. If you take a quick visual inventory of your kitchen right now, you probably see numerous items casually lying around your kitchen. How many of these things are on top of or near something that could heat up, like your stovetop, toaster, air fryer, Instapot, Keurig, or some other kitchen appliance? Paul points out the most common kitchen items that could be fire hazards if not stored properly.
If you want to reduce the risk of fire in your kitchen, make sure that items like oven mitts, wooden utensils, paper towels, dishcloths, plastic bags, and food packaging are never left close by or on top of an object that creates heat. It’s also wise to unplug appliances when they are not in use, because they draw a lot of electricity and are still creating heat if connected to an outlet.
Another thing that can light up quickly in a kitchen is your furry pet—so keep your pet off cooking surfaces and nearby countertops. Also, Paul says to avoid wearing loose-fitting clothing or long sleeves while cooking. They can dangle onto the stove and catch fire if they come in contact with a gas flame or electric burner. Finally, Paul warns against lighting candles in the kitchen, as he’s put out a lot of home fires started by candles over the past few decades. A flaming candle only adds an additional fire risk to an already-hot kitchen. If you can’t live without the scent of citrus or lavender in your kitchen, consider using scented flameless candles instead.
- Never throw water on a grease fire. A grease fire can happen when your cooking oil becomes too hot. Whether you’re using vegetable oil, lard, or goose fat, look for signs to prevent a grease fire from happening in the first place. As the oil heats up, it will first boil and then smoke before it eventually catches fire. However, if you miss these cues and a grease fire does strike, Paul wants to make sure you do not make the mistake that many other cooks in the kitchen have made.
Most people’s reaction to a grease fire is to throw water on it. Or they grab the flaming pan and throw it into the sink, so they can run the faucet over it. This is going to do exactly the opposite of what they’re intending—instead of dampening the flames, they are going to disperse grease everywhere. And anywhere hot grease lands, another fire is likely to flare up.
What is a safe way to put out a grease fire? The key is to take away one or more of the three things that a fire needs to ignite: fuel, oxygen, and heat. Fire professionals like Paul refer to these components of a fire as the “fire triangle.” Paul says the first thing you should do in the event of a grease fire is turn off the burner you’re using. This removes the element of heat from the fire. Next, put a cover over the pan or pot that’s on fire, which will take away the oxygen component. Now, the fuel (the oil) can no longer burn. After you’ve done these two things, Paul recommends walking away and letting everything cool down for a long, long time. Don’t make the error of taking the cover off too soon, because the grease could still be hot and incoming oxygen could quickly start the fire back up.
- Use a fire extinguisher only if you are absolutely certain you know how to operate it correctly. Should you experience a kitchen fire, having a portable fire extinguisher close by and using it to put out flames quickly could save lives and belongings. However, only attempt to do so if you’re sure you understand how to work this equipment. Otherwise, Paul says you should just exit the house and call the fire department.
Since a fire can double in size every 60 seconds, if you are fumbling around with your fire extinguisher because you’re not quite sure how to use it correctly, that small, contained fire in your kitchen can turn into an overwhelming house fire in just a few minutes.
If you have a fire extinguisher, hopefully you will never have to use it. Just in case, though, Paul strongly suggests reading up on how it works or going down to your local fire station and asking the professionals to show you how to operate it. You should also regularly check that the pressure gauge on the fire extinguisher is in the green, which is an indication that the unit is still in good shape. Most importantly, if you ever do use your fire extinguisher, plan to exit your home immediately afterward. The very fine powder that comes out of your fire extinguisher coats and smothers the fire, but it also spreads a harsh baking soda-like substance into the air that can make it hard to breathe.
- Install your kitchen smoke alarm correctly to make your home and family safer and to avoid false alarms. There are very few noises as grating on the nerves as the sound of a smoke alarm going off right over your head. Since just a slight wisp of smoke from a simmering tomato sauce or a slightly burnt piece of toast can trigger that shrieking siren, some homeowners don’t like to put a smoke detector in the kitchen. However, this is a huge, and possibly deadly, mistake, says Paul.
Smoke alarms are designed to save lives, but they can only do so if they are placed properly throughout your home and then maintained to ensure they are always in working order. To minimize the likelihood of a false alarm, you should install a detector about 10 feet from a cooking appliance and mount it on the ceiling. You can’t predict a fire, but correctly placed, working smoke alarms are the next best thing.
In addition to the kitchen, you should have smoke detectors on every floor of your home, and in and outside each sleeping area. Just as important, you need to regularly check that any battery-operated smoke alarms are fully functioning. Paul finds it easy to remember to change his smoke alarm batteries by doing it when clocks spring forward and fall back. If you have smoke alarms with nonreplaceable 10-year batteries, you will definitely know when the battery is low because the alarm will chirp a warning. You’ll need to replace the entire smoke alarm right away when this happens.
Paul’s last important pointer on alarms is to make sure you also have a working carbon monoxide (CO) monitor on each floor. In the home, heating and cooking equipment that burns fuel such as gas, propane, wood, or oil is a potential source of CO. Since carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless gas and thus often referred to as the “invisible killer,” properly placing monitors throughout your home is critical for detecting this deadly gas.
Paul’s pointers are meant to help you prevent a kitchen fire or put out a small kitchen fire yourself, if you feel comfortable doing so. However, never forget that a fire situation can escalate very quickly. Many times, your best option is to just get out of your home when you see flames or smell smoke.
For this reason, it’s critical to have a detailed escape plan and for everyone living under your roof to practice it several times a year. This plan should include multiple options for exiting your home through windows and doors that easily open, as well as a designated spot for every household member to meet up outside of the building. Don’t forget to call 911 when you are safely out of the home.
National Fire Prevention Week is a great time of year to double-check that you and your family are doing everything you can to keep your home and belongings safe from fire. If you need some help with implementing fire safety and prevention best practices in your kitchen and throughout your home, Paul and the HIG team are happy to give you more pointers. We can assist you in identifying some of the ways your home may be at risk for a fire and also provide you with best practices for how to navigate a fire event if it ever happens to you. We will also help you understand how your home insurance is designed to cover you from a loss due to a fire. Please contact us for more information on protecting your home, belongings, and, most importantly, your loved ones.