Everything You Need to Know to Protect You (And Your Family) from House Fires

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House fires are one of the most traumatic events that could ever happen in someone’s home. Not only do people lose precious property and treasured items, damage repair could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And of course there’s the greatest fear of all, that fires can lead to injury and death.

2016 Fire Death Report

In 2016, residential fires made up 29% of all fires in the United States. That same year, statistics from the United States Fire Administration showed that of 3,390 people who died in a fire, 73.2% of those deaths happened on residential property.

Most of us live our daily lives not even thinking about the fire safety of our homes, but these statistics show that it is vitally important for us to make sure our living spaces are protected against these disasters. Have no idea where to start? Don’t worry. Here’s everything you need to know to protect your home from fires.

What Are the Odds of Being in a House Fire?

Regional Risk Factors of House Fires
Regional Risk Factors of House Fires

As far as your risk of actually being in a house fire, there’s no one answer to this question since the risk of house fires varies by many regional factors including:

  • Climate
  • Time of year 
  • Poverty
  • Quality of home structures. 

For example, in 2016 California was one of the leading states for house fires due to the rampant wildfires that consumed the west coast. And if you live in a colder climate, fires are more likely to occur during the winter season when you want to turn up the heat in your hom according to a report from the United States Fire Administration. Heating systems that malfunction or are left unattended can be a huge risk. While we can’t control the climate outside, there are many steps you can take to prevent house fires from happening in the first place. 

Related: The Best Fireproof Document Bags of 2019

The Major Causes of House Fires

Let’s walk through all the scenarios that typically cause house fires.

Cooking Mishaps

Cooking accidents can cause house fires.

Today, mishaps with cooking equipment is the leading cause of all house fires (nearly 50%) and the second leading cause of fire deaths, according to a fact sheet from the National Fire Protection Association.

It’s important to be careful when you’re cooking up a feast — especially if you are distracted while doing it. Plus if you are using any flammable oils or items near the stove, oven, or open flame and not paying close attention, you are putting yourself and your family at risk.

Heating Issues

Heating equipment is the second leading cause of house fires in the U.S. Usually these scary accidents happen when you’re trying to heat up your bedroom with your space heater and don’t realize how close it is to your mattress comforter or any other combustibles. Upholstered furniture, clothing, mattress, or bedding can all catch fire if they are too close to heating equipment.

Fires can also occur if your heating system breaks down or if you fail to properly clean your equipment. For example, a dirty chimney or wood stove can result in a house fire. Creosote, a dark brown oil that is often left over from burning wood or coal, is highly flammableand  can build up if your chimney or stove is not cleaned regularly, according to a Public Health Statement from the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry. 

Maybe that’s why people don’t use chimneys has much as they used to, but if you have one, make sure you have it inspected before you start using it.

Electrical and Lighting Malfunctions

Electric and lighting malfunctions

Electrical malfunctions can happen for many reasons.

  • Arc faults: This occurs when there is a high power discharge of electricity between two or more conductors within the wires of an electrical system. That discharge can let off a heat so hot that it can melt the wire’s insulation and light up whatever is around it.
  • Electrical overloads: Have you ever seen a power strip loaded up with so many devices that you prayed to yourself that it wouldn’t blow up? Well, that power strip will probably not implode into little pieces, but if any cable on that strip experiences more current than it’s capable of carrying, than it might catch on fire.

    Microwave
    Microwave
  • Short circuiting: This happens when currents don’t flow properly in your electrical system. Instead, they take shortcuts from conductor to conductor causing a rise in heat and possible even fire.
  • Current leaks: This tends to occur more in older structures where cables are worn and exposed to excessive moisture or corrosion. Here’s a nightmare situation for you: a corroded electrical wire below a wet carpet. Not only can this cause a fire, but the conduction of the electricity (via the water) can actually electrocute someone.
  • Lightning: If lightning strikes a house, it can cause a major power surge which could overload an electrical system and lead to a fire.

Smoking Accidents

Smoking accidents can cause house fires.Smoking in and of itself does not cause fires, but the materials used for the activity can.

Cigarettes, cigars and pipes that aren’t properly put out or left by combustible material are a huge hazard when it comes to fire safety. In fact, smoking materials caused 17,200 houses in 2014, according to the NFPA website.

We might feel the safest when we are at home, and for some that means we can sit back and enjoy a cigar here and there. But this does not mean we can put our guard down when it comes to disposing smoking materials. Improper disposal can lead to death and injury.

Candle Fires

Candle fires

Many people love to use candles in their home: they are great for aromatherapy, creating a romantic ambiance at dinner, lighting up a birthday cake or even lighting the house in the event of a power outage. 

However, if we are too careless with candles, they can be extremely dangerous. A fire could easily start if someone bumps a candle off it’s holder. And sometimes people forget to put their candles  out before they go to bed, instead letting them burn all the way down and scald the surface they sit on. Plus, it’s easy to light a candle near flammable material accidentally. As you can see, there’s many ways that using candles can go horribly wrong. 

Bottom line is: about 25 candle fires are reported every day in the United States, according to the NFPA. That little light of yours needs to be handled with care.

Natural Disasters

Lightning can cause electrical power surges
Lightning can cause electrical power surges

Sometimes fires are out of our control and there’s nothing much we can do when Mother Nature rears her angry head. As mentioned before, lightning can cause electrical power surges, which can set off a fire in or near a home. Forest wildfires can consume entire neighborhoods. Hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and earthquakes can also create fires if they damage heating or electrical devices in a way that causes the equipment (or the material around the equipment) to combust.

Intentional Fires and Arson

Arson

As a victim of arson, this is also a misfortune that is tough to control — unless one gets into the mind of the criminal to prevent a disaster from happening. While arson is not one of the leading causes of house fires, research from the Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that there were 18.2 arson offensives for every 100,000 inhabitants of an area across the United States in 2011. Unfortunately, arson do so a lot of damage, was the average dollar loss per arson was at over $13,000. 

How to Safeguard Your Home Against House Fires

Thankfully there are many ways to protect yourself from a potentially dangerous situations. We’ll walk you through some safety tips for each of the hazardous situations above.

Related: Fire Safety and Security For The Home 

Protecting Yourself from Cooking Accidents

Prevent cooking accidents.

The next time you are preparing a meal, make sure to ask yourself:

  • Am I alert enough to be cooking right now?”
  • Am I sleepy or tired?
  • Have I been drinking alcohol?

A lack of awareness and control over one’s body can lead to accidents. The oil topples onto the stove, napkins get a little close to an open flame; it’s easy for mistakes to be made.

That’s why it’s important that you have your head on straight when you are cooking with fire. If you are good to start slicing and dicing, here are few more things to keep in mind:

  • When frying, boiling, grilling or broiling, stay in the kitchen: Don’t leave your pots and pans unattended for things to burn. If you need to leave for a bit for whatever reason, turn off the stove.
  • When simmering, baking or roasting, check on your food regularly: Again, you don’t want things to burn or catch fire. Take a peak on your food once in a while and stay in the home while it’s cooking. Set a timer to remind you when to check on the food.
  • Keep combustibles away from stoves and ovens: Oven mitts, napkins, paper towels, utensils, towels, curtains— make sure to keep them at a safe distance from combustibles.
  • Make sure your electric stove is off when you are not using it: Because electric stoves don’t cook with fire (which is more visible to the eye) sometimes it’s tough to know if it’s on or off, particularly if a pot or pan is covering it. Before you leave the kitchen, double check that your electric stove is turned off.

In the case that you do have a small grease fire, here’s what to do:

  • Stovetop: Turn off the burner and place the lid on the pot or pan and let the fire die down. Leave everything until it’s completely cooled down.
  • Oven: Turn off the heat and close the oven door.

Being Safe Around Heating Equipment

How to stay safe around heating equipment.

One key to fire safety is making sure your heating equipment is operating properly.Here are a few things to look out for when you are setting up your home:

  • If you need a new heating system, hire a professional to set it up: You might call yourself Mr. or Mrs. “Fix It”, but it is important that your equipment it installed according to state codes and manufacturer instructions. Hire someone to make sure everything is set up correctly.
  • Keep combustibles at least three feet away from any heating equipment: This is a sure-fire way to make sure things don’t randomly set on fire. Pun intended.
  • Create a kid-free zone: To protect your children make sure to have a three-foot barrier around fireplaces or space heaters.
  • When using a fireplace, cover it with a protective screen: This will prevent embers and sparks from flying into the room. When you dispose of the ashes, make sure they are cool before placing them in a safe metal container.
  • Do not use an oven to heat your home: Having an open open for hours is extremely risky and dangerous.
  • Clean your equipment: Have your heating equipment and chimneys cleaned and inspected every year.
  • Make sure you are using the right fuel: If you are using a heater that requires a certain fuel, stick to that. Using anything else can cause a dangerous malfunction.
  • Turn off portable heaters before going to bed: You may fall asleep a little chillier than you would like, but this way you’ll be assured that a fire won’t start while you are asleep. If anything bad occurs, you’ll be awake to respond quickly.

Taking Precautions with Electrical Equipment

How to stay safe around electrical equipment.
How to stay safe around electrical equipment.

The tips for electrical equipment are similar to heating in the sense that the emphasis is all around installment and placement:

  • Make sure all electrical work is done by a pro: Again, it’s important that your home is wired correctly and meets local codes.
  • Never plug in more than one heating device into an outlet: So coffee makers, toasters, space heaters…make sure that only one electrical component is plugged in at a time.
  • Do not plug in large appliances into extension cords or power strips: Big things like refrigerators, washers, dryers, stoves and air conditioners should only be plugged into the wall. These appliances can overload any power strips you try to use with them.
  • Make sure there are no electrical cords running across doorways or under carpets: Cords placed in these areas are more susceptible to damage and electrical leakages can cause fires.
  • For lighting, make sure to use the right bulbs: Before you install your bulbs, look at the sticker that indicates their wattage. If they are appropriate for your light fixture then you’re safe from the bulb melting.

Avoiding Smoking Accidents

How to avoid smoking accidents.
How to avoid smoking accidents.

Now we at Security Baron don’t encourage smoking tobacco. According to the National Cancer Institute’s website, smoking cigarettes is one of the leading causes of lung cancer in America.

However, we are aware that my Americans still smoke regardless of the risks. If you’re going to partake in any type of smoking, follow these suggestions to avoid any fire hazards:

  • Use fire-safe cigarettes: These have a “lower ignition propensity”, which means they are more likely to burnout when left alone.
  • Smoke outside: Most fire deaths occur inside the home because they are harder to escape.
  • Keep lighters and matches away from kids: Lock them up. Put them away where children can’t reach them. You don’t want them playing with fire.
  • Never smoke around medical oxygen: Medical oxygen makes everything in the room that much more flammable.

When you are putting your cigarette, cigar or pipe out:

  • Place in a deep ashtray: And make sure that ashtray is away from anything that could burn.
  • Don’t place in any form of vegetation: Mulch, shrubs and potted plants can easily catch fire.
  • Before you throw away butts and ashes make sure they are out: Douse them with water or dump sand all over them before disposing them.

Treating Candles with Care

Treating candles with care.

Candles are beautiful pieces of decor, but we have to be careful when using them:

  • Keep them a foot away from anything that can burn: Curtains, lamp shades, table cloths and things of the sort are all susceptible to catching fire. In addition, when you are lighting a candle, make sure your hair and clothing are away from the flame.
  • Use sturdy candle holders: You don’t want that baby tipping over.
  • Don’t let the candle burn all the way down: Put your candles out when you are leaving the room or going to sleep, especially if the flame is close to the bottom of a container.
  • Never light a candle if you’re using oxygen in your home: Again, oxygen makes things extremely flammable.
  • When the power goes out, use flashlights: If you’re lighting your whole home with candles, you’ll have a lot of flame to look over. If you aren’t paying much attention, you’re at a higher risk for a house fire.

Arming Yourself Against Natural Disasters (Particularly Wildfires)

While fires cause by lightning strikes, tornadoes and other natural disasters are hard to prevent, there are a lot of actions we can take to curb the damage of wild forest fires. If you live in an area where you are at risk, you need to make sure that your house won’t fuel the flames:

  • Clear your house of pine needles and dead leaves: Check your rooflines, decks, porches, gutters porches and fence lines. Rake. Sweep. Vacuum. Do anything to clean up. Loose embers will eat that stuff up.
  • Put away outdoor furnishing: During wildfire season, it’s important to pack up any furniture cushions, rugs, decorations and potted plants. These items are flammable and could encourage a fire to spread.
  • Screen and seal all vents and opening: Wind-born embers can fly into homes and start another fire.
  • Trim shrubs and trees that come within five feet of your home: This lessens the chance of a bush catching on fire and spreading into your house.
  • Close all windows and doors: If you have to evacuate your house, make sure all openings to your house are closed. Most houses burn down during wildfires because of embers that were able to sneak into the home.
  • Remove anything that could be a large fuel source: If you own a boat or a car or if you collect wood for the fireplace, move them far away from your house. You don’t want to feed the flames.

Fighting Against Arson

Install a security camera to track arson.
Install a security camera to track arson.

Arson is one of those crimes that requires a community effort to thwart. Where arson is prevalent, police and fire departments recommend that neighbors band together to form a community watch group to ward off criminals before they cause any damage. But here are some things you can do to protect your own home:

  • Install alarm systems and security cameras: Most arson fires are started inside the home. If a trespasser breaks into your home, then a sound security system could scare them away.
  • Make sure doors and windows are properly locked and sealed: You don’t want any holes to encourage arsonists to get in.
  • Flammable material should be stored inside the house: If you use wood for a fireplace or a furnace, keep that inside and away from criminals.

If you ever see any suspicious activity, make sure you report it to the police or the fire department in your area.

Fire Protection Technologies to Store in Your Home

While we can make sure our equipment is installed properly and make sure combustibles are not exposed to excessive heat or flames, there are many tools and devices out there that can either help prevent a fire from happening or warn us from any impending danger.

Related: The Best Smoke and CO Detectors of 2019

Items to prevent house fires.
Items to prevent house fires.

You might want to look into getting these in your home.

  • Smoke and fire alarms: These will alert you when a fire has started in your home. You should check them once a month to make sure that they are working properly and that the batteries are fully charged.
  • Home sprinklers: You might see these more in commercial and school buildings, but you can use these in your home as well. These sprinklers will help put the fire out once they detect the heat.
  • Arc-fault circuit interrupters and ground-fault circuit interrupters: Also called AFCIs and GFCIs, these will shut off the electricity any time a dangerous situation occurs.
  • Fire extinguisher: If you can stop a small fire in its tracks before it spreads, that’s the best scenario. A fire extinguisher can help you with that without having to call the authorities. But if the fire is out of control, get out fast.

Sometimes these tools are extremely helpful in a fire situation. But even when you have all the bells and whistles ringing and a fire extinguisher in our hands, you can still get trapped in the flames. We need to have a plan B when things go wrong.

What to Do If You You’re in a Fire

Before the worst case scenario occurs, it’s important to plan your escape.

Gather your family and roommates together and map out the best escape roots and plan an outdoor meeting spot once each of you has gotten out of danger. Everyone in the household should have the emergency contact of the police and fire departments memorized. And if there any infants, children or people with disabilities within the home, they need to be assigned to someone who can help assist them out of the house. These tips will put you in the best situation when a fire occurs.

What to Do If You You’re in a Fire

When you are actually in a fire:

  • Get out immediately: Only call 911 when you are in a safe place.
  • If you encounter smoke, crawl out: Most fire deaths occur because people inhale too much smoke.
  • Never open a hot door: Chances are more fire and smoke are behind that door. If you have to open a door, check on whether or not it’s hot by placing the back of your hand against it. If it’s hot, find another way to proceed. If it’s cool, you can open it up slowly and carefully.
  • Call the authorities once you’re safely outside the house: It’s important to get professional help to put the fire out and help any people who are still inside the building. And if you or any of your loved ones inhaled smoke or are suffering from burns, it’s important to get medical help as soon as possible.

House fires are incredibly dangerous situations and it’s important to know these tips to make sure you put yourself in the best position to escape unharmed.

What to Do After You’ve Experienced A House Fire

When any sort of trauma has a occurred to you, your family or your property, it can be very confusing as to how to move forward. You may still be in shock and unsure of what to do. But if you can keep this list handy, you’ll at least have some sort of a guideline.

  • If you don’t have a place to stay, contact your local relief center: Places like the Red Cross can set you up with food, clothing, shelter and medicine until you find new housing.
  • Call your insurance agency: Talk to them about how to keep your house safe until it’s repaired. Ask them who can help clean up your home from the damage. If you don’t have insurance, look for community groups that can give you some aid and assistance.
  • Only re-enter your home when the fire department says it’s safe to enter: And don’t try to use any of the utilities before the firefighters try to turn them back on. It could be dangerous otherwise.
  • Protect your finances: Tell your landlord about the fire or mortgage lender as soon as you can. Report any credit or debit cards lost in the fire and keep track of receipts for any money you spend on repair. Your insurance company might need these receipts and they’ll be needed to prove any losses on your tax return.
  • Try to find valuable documents: If you can’t find them in the damage, it’s time to replace them ASAP.
  • Check in with the IRS: You might be able to receive benefits for people who have experienced house fires.

If you have suffered any physical or emotional traumas please seek a medical professional to help you recover to your normal, healthy self.

A Fireproof Home is a Happy Home

Fireproof home.

There’s no doubt that house fires are incredibly scarring to the victims involved. That’s why we wrote this article so that you have the tools and wherewithal to protect yourself from fires, but also know what to do if the worst occurs. We’ve given you a lot of information, but generally speaking, these are the key takeaways to making sure your home is as safe as it could ever be:

  • Be super conscious when you are using heating, electrical and cooking equipment: You might be a good cook or an awesome handyman or woman, but it’s vital that all of the equipment you use is up to code as well as not flammable.
  • Put out smoking materials and candles properly: If you let these things smolder while your gone, your house could be in trouble.
  • Fireproof your house from wildfires: Make sure outdoor combustibles are either cleaned up or put away.
  • Install fire protection technology to stop fires from getting out of control:
    Have a plan. Educate yourself and your family to set everyone up for survival.

Fires are preventable if you treat your home with precaution. And if they ever do occur, know now that you’ll handle it a little more prepared.

Adele Jackson-Gibson

Adele Jackson-Gibson

Adele Jackson-Gibson is a writer and multimedia content creator living in NYC. She got her graduate degree in journalism from NYU and her undergrad degree in French literature from Yale University. Her specialty is fitness and sports, but she nerds out about anime, video games and technology. She is passionate about helping people find peace of mind and lends that passion to her work at Security Baron.

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