Top tips to avoid a home fire

No one wants to think about a fire in the home, but there are 20,000 house fires in an average year in Canada, resulting in 300 deaths and more than $500 million in property damage. In the US, nearly 3,000 people die each year in home fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Not surprisingly, fatalities tend to increase during the winter months, when more people crank up their heat, light fires and candles and cook indoors.

Here are some top home hazards to watch out for — and important tips to help prevent a fire.

Kitchen fires. Cooking is the number one cause of home fires, experts say. They may start small, but kitchen fires can spread quickly and be extremely destructive.

What you can do : Equip your kitchen with a photoelectric smoke alarm which is designed to detect a slow smoldering fire. To cut down on the annoying alarms caused by common cooking mishaps such as burnt toast, look for alarms with a ‘hush’ button that allows you to temporarily silence it. (Do not remove the batteries from a smoke alarm, or take it off the ceiling, to silence a nuisance alarm.) Of course, it’s always a good idea to equip your kitchen with a fire extinguisher within reach in case of fire.

Other tips to prevent kitchen fires, include:

— Stay in the kitchen when cooking. Do not leave the room unless absolutely necessary, and never leave your home while food is on the stove or in the oven or microwave.

— Keep the stove and surrounding area clear of items such as dishtowels, potholders, curtains and aprons that can catch fire easily.

— Turn pot handles towards the centre of the stove. This reduces the risk of a pot being accidently bumped by an adult or pulled down by a child. For added safety, try to cook on the back burners as much as possible.

— Be wary of loose-fitting clothing. Roll up your sleeves or choose short or tight-fitting sleeves.

— Turn off the stove, oven elements and other cooking devices as soon as you have finished with them. This includes kettles, deep fryers and toasters.

— Keep your cooking area clean. Do not let grease build up on the range top, toaster oven or in the oven.

— During barbecue season, always stay by the grill when cooking. And be sure to position your grill at least 3 meters (or 10 feet) away from other objects, including the house and any shrubs or bushes.

What to do in case of a fire:

— Do not pour water on a grease or oil fire. Water causes grease fires to spread. Keep a fire extinguisher in your kitchen, and use it to extinguish a fire if it is small and contained.

— Smother a flaming pot. If a pot catches fire, put on a pot mitt and carefully slide a lid over the pot to smother the flames, and then turn off the stove. If possible, move the pot on top of an element that is cold.

— Contain fires in ovens and microwaves. If a fire starts in the oven or microwave, close the door immediately – and keep it closed. Turn the oven or microwave off immediately, and unplug the microwave if it’s safe to do so.

— If you are unsure that you can handle the fire safely, call 911 immediately and evacuate your house.

Bedroom fires. The main culprits for accidental fires in sleeping areas are candles, frayed or damaged extension cords and electrical devices, improper use of space heaters, and smoking in bed.

What you can do : Working smoke alarms should be positioned outside each sleeping area, or inside each bedroom if you sleep with your door closed. Install a carbon monoxide (CO) alarm outside the master bedroom. If your home has more than one storey — and especially if you sleep on a higher floor — keep a fire escape ladder either under the bed or in a linen closet near a window. Also establish – and practice! – a detailed family escape plan.

Other tips:

— Check to see that all extension cords and electrical devices are in good condition, and if cords are damaged or frayed, replace them. Exposed wires can be unsightly, but be sure not to run electrical cords under carpets or heavy furniture where they may become damaged.

— Give your space heater some space. If you use a space heater for extra warmth in the winter, be sure it is at least one meter (or 3 feet) away from anything that can burn. Turn all space heaters off when you leave the room or go to bed. When it comes to children, space heaters should be removed from their rooms completely when they go to bed.

— Be extra cautious with candles. Even the smallest candle can be the cause of a major fire. Place them in sturdy holders that won’t burn or allow wax to drip, and keep them a safe distance from flammable materials such as curtains, books or posters. Before you go to sleep or leave the room, blow out all candles and make sure they are fully extinguished. Children and teens should not be allowed to have candles in their bedrooms, and keep an eye on pets, who may brush against or accidently knock over a candle. Finally, to eliminate the risk of an open flame, use battery-powered candles whenever possible, especially when you’re combining candles with greenery or other decorations.

— Don’t smoke in or around your bed. Smoking and beds don’t mix, period – even if you don’t feel sleepy.

What to do in case of fire:

— Yell to alert others at home with you and execute your Escape Plan as practiced.

— Evacuate the home as quickly as possible and call 911 to call for help.

Basement and garage fires. While you may not spend a lot of your time in the basement or garage, equipment and materials that are often stored in these areas can quickly become a hazard.

What you can do: As with other areas of the home, make sure you have a working smoke alarm and CO alarm in each area, as well as a fire extinguisher to fight small and contained fires. Be sure to keep your furnace maintained and inspected professionally before each heating season. (Experts also recommend an annual sweep of chimneys.)

Whether your laundry room is in the basement or some other area of the house, keep an eye on your dryer ducts. Lint-filled dryer ducts are responsible for about 4,500 home fires in the US each year. Be sure to remove and clean the duct regularly and clean the lint filter after each load.

Other tips:

— Store flammable materials with extreme care. If you must keep items such as paint thinner or lighter fluid in your basement or garage, ensure they are in the original containers or approved safety containers. If you store gasoline in your garage, keep it in an approved container – and replace worn or damaged containers immediately. Remember: Gasoline vapors can explode with only a tiny spark, so be sure to clean any spills thoroughly at once. As always, all flammable liquids and fire-starting materials should be well out of the reach of children.

— Follow the manufacturers instructions when using power tools and equipment (those with batteries or connected to an electrical outlet) especially near gasoline or flammable liquids.

— Remove your vehicle from the garage as soon as you start it. An idling vehicle emits dangerous carbon monoxide, making it unsafe to run a vehicle indoors, even if the garage is well ventilated.

What to do in case of fire:

It’s always risky to try to combat a fire on your own, but particularly so when toxic or highly combustible materials are involved. Evacuate as quickly as possible and call 911 for help.


The main causes of household fires include:

— Lack of attention when cooking or using candles.

— Careless placement of items near the stove.

— Accidents involving gas, propane and solvents.

— Problems with electrical equipment such as short circuits, overloaded systems, fuse, loose connections, frayed cords and improper use of extension cords.

— Accidents involving smoking including falling asleep while smoking or not properly extinguishing cigarettes, and children playing with matches or lighters.

NOTE: Experts say that all fire prevention equipment such as smoke alarms and fire extinguishers should be checked monthly to ensure they are in working order. Also keep in mind that there are alarms available if you have special needs, such as having difficulty hearing. As for those all-important fire drills, experts recommend practicing your escape plan at least twice a year.

Read more about fire prevention and home safety.

Additional Sources: Consumer’s Reports; Fire Prevention Canada; HomeSafetyCouncil