Fire Prevention Tips for Homeowners
One of the most traumatic things that can happen to a home or business owner is a fire unless you live in hurricane territory. Witness what just happened in SW Florida. In either case, people can be out of their houses and commercial buildings for a lengthy time.
Meanwhile, things must be sorted out with insurance coverage. Usually, it is fairly easy and straightforward for a single-family owner, but not so for a building tenant, condo, or townhome owner. In the latter case, both the association’s master policy and usually the individual HO 6 policy of the homeowner must be examined. A fire loss claim can be a colossal headache on top of all the other responsibilities of an association board and property manager. Dealing with traumatized homeowners and worried board members will test anyone’s coping skills. The whole process usually takes several months and can tax even the most patient. Thankfully, many fires are in single-family homes but those displace people for a long time.
If that isn’t an indisputable argument for fire prevention consider this: More people are now working from home and risk has increased significantly. One might think that fires would diminish because people are home more and can do a better job of watching things. But as a local insurance agent wryly observed: “Actually if a homeowner or renter is spending more time at home they are more prone to do dumb things.”
It’s apparent residents ARE doing more “dumb things” according to local fire chiefs. At a recent Minnesota Fire Chiefs Convention in Duluth, many fire chiefs reported that their fire calls were higher this past summer despite fewer lightning storms. Some of this is attributable to dry conditions, but since additional people are home, cooking and grilling are increasing. Appliance usage is up leading to more power demand. Remodeling and repair work has soared during the Covid period with corresponding demands on equipment. It all translates to enhanced fire risk.
It becomes incumbent on everyone who owns property to do what they can to reduce fire risk in their homes and buildings. That means doing more fire prevention education. Every October we’re reminded that it’s fire prevention month. Fire Departments choose that month for obvious reasons. The weather cools thus driving more people inside and folks do more cooking, candle lighting, and remodeling. Plus, the holidays bring more people together and thus more activity. Given more people working from home, a trend that seems destined to continue for a while, it’s going to be necessary to do more fire prevention education and reminders other times of the year.
We all know the usual fire prevention tips. While it’s good to learn the basics, Fire Chiefs will tell you how varied fire causes are. An advanced understanding of how to prevent fires would be helpful, hence the following will hopefully bring you up to a “post-graduate” knowledge level. It’s also recommended to check out information on the Internet along with your local fire department. The latter does a great job with fire prevention education. Since this is more information than the typical person can absorb at one reading, perhaps monthly or quarterly communication of the tips is a good idea rather than just doing it every October during Fire Prevention Week.
The following is a compilation of many sources including various local fire departments as well as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the experience of a local fire restoration company. Let’s start with a review of the basics. According to the National Fire Protection Association, the five leading causes of residential fires are as follows:
- Cooking accounts for 48% of all home fires. Generally, these are grease fires. When cooking oil exceeds 375 degrees Fahrenheit and it starts to smoke, it can soon erupt into flames. Monitor cooking oil closely. If it erupts into flames use a fire extinguisher that is approved to put out oil and grease fires. Make sure it puts out B hazard-rated fire. In lieu of a fire extinguisher, use baking soda to snuff out a small fire, but no other baking product. Putting a lid over the pan works also, but make sure you have heat-resisting cooking gloves or a mitt to do that. Don’t attempt to move the pan to the sink and never ever use water on a grease or oil fire. You will cause an explosion.
- Portable heaters are the second leading cause of fires. Heaters that use liquid fuel have a much higher risk than those that use electricity. Most heater fires are caused by flammables that are too close to the heater. Also, heaters are NOT meant to be used with extension cords.
- Electrical fires are the third leading cause. This is the most worrisome as electrical wiring is often inside the walls where rodents can chew on them. Have an electrician check the entire house to make sure the system and electrical fixtures are up to code and safe.
- Smoking is the fourth cause. Everyone knows fires are caused by smoking in bed and when cigarette butts are disposed of improperly. Don’t smoke in bed!
- Candles are the fifth highest cause of fire. Many are too close to flammables and prone to tipping. Never ever leave candles unattended. Today we have battery-operated candles that look like the real thing, and you don’t have to deal with the smoke, which in some candles, leaves a residue on windows and other surfaces.
Now let’s examine some more obscure fire causes that firefighters encounter in homes and outdoors:
Dryer Lint Traps: Most of us, but not all, especially new homeowners, don’t know that lint traps on clothes dryers need to be cleaned out regularly. But that’s not all. The venting pipes going outside also can become clogged and a source for fire.
Bathroom Fans/Kitchen Hood Fans: These units, by design, pull hair, dust, and lint into the unit over the years and become clogged. Kitchen hood fans draw grease and food. Many people do not clean their fans are fire risk increases. Other fans just reach the end of their lifespans and can overheat. Sometimes wires become frayed. Replace when the unit omits noises that are not normal or at the end of their lifespans, which for bathroom fans are 10 years, and closer to 15 for kitchen hood fans.
Improper Use of Electrical Cords/Receptacles: This includes overloaded circuits, and cords placed underneath rugs and carpeting to avoid trips. Frayed cords should not be used, and extension cords should be used properly. They are not designed for permanent electrical power, especially for heavy appliances.
Chargers of All Types: This includes chargers for computers, household tools, and other items. Chargers can get covered with blankets and other materials and ignition can occur. Using computers in bed increases fire risk. The machines get covered up and end up igniting bedding or clothing. Make sure chargers are well vented. To be on the safe side, monitor the units and when equipment is fully charged, unplug them.
Batteries: Batteries, especially lithium batteries can pose a hazard when not disposed of properly. Lithium batteries cannot be disposed of with household trash. Local battery recycling stations can take care of this for you. Proper storage and use is of high importance with batteries as well. Ensure that you do not overcharge batteries or use them if they are wet or damaged.
Malfunctioning Kitchen Appliances: While rare, appliances like coffee makers and toasters will malfunction and sometimes overheat. People push down the toaster lever and on rare occasions, it will not pop back up again. Coffee makers left on can sometimes overheat. Make a habit of unplugging kitchen appliances not in use to be safe. Only one heat-producing appliance should be plugged into a receptacle at a time.
Smaller Electrical Appliances: Small appliances like clothes irons, hair straighteners, and curling irons get hot and will ignite flammables. Hair dryers left on can overheat. When possible, buy appliances that have shut-off devices so if they are left on by mistake, they won’t be a danger.
Smokers and Turkey Fryers: Never use them indoors, even in a garage with the door open. Also, move them away from the house. Several fires occur because people put these units up against the house to block the wind. Leaves and other materials can gather below the unit and ignite. When using peanut oil fryers, be aware of overfilling the unit with oil, and also don’t put anything frozen in them. Very hot oil and moisture are combustive.
Potting Soil and Cigarettes: The guilty ingredient here is peat moss. Never ever, put out a cigarette butt in peat moss. It may ignite. Move potted plants away from combustible materials. Use clay pots whenever you can.
Wood Fireplaces: Make sure the fire screen is pulled across to prevent cinders from escaping the fire pit. Also, avoid cooking in fireplaces and don’t use paper, cardboard, and ‘soft” woods. Try and use only hardwoods like oak and ash to avoid creosote build-up which can cause fires in the chamber. Clean your fireplace every year or have it professionally checked to avoid chimney fires. Use metal containers for ashes. Cinders can linger for many days in heavy ash.
Electrical Precautions: DYI electrical work is not recommended. Use a qualified electrician. Incorporate arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) and ground-fault interrupters (GFCIs) to shut off electricity when dangerous conditions occur. If you have frequent problems with blown fuses or tripping circuit breakers or AFCIs and GFCIs, this is a warning that something is wrong. Electricians should check out warm wall outlets, burning/rubbery smells from appliances, flickering/dimming lights, and sparks from outlets. Use light bulbs with the proper watts for specific applications.
Holiday Decorations: Dry Christmas trees are a frequent source of fires every year. Any spark or heat can ignite them. Use cooler LED lights and examine your wiring for frays. Keep them away from fireplaces, candles, and smokers. It goes without saying that holiday decorations lead to overloaded circuits.
Smoke Alarms at Homes: Check them at least once a month. Replace smoke alarms 10 years or older. Place a smoke alarm in every bedroom and on all levels of the house. Close doors at night to prevent the spread of smoke, heat, and fire. All smoke alarms should be interconnected to provide warning all over the house. Use a hard-wired device with a battery backup.
Safe Grilling: Grills should be well away from the house, railings, and eves. Keep grills clean from fat buildup. Never add charcoal lighter fluid to burning coals. Check propane grill hoses for leaks each year by applying a light soap and water solution to the hose. A propane gas leak will produce bubbles. If you smell gas while cooking move away from the grill.
Pest Control and Fire Risk: No one wants to share their home with mice, rats, and other rodents. Increased fire risk is another good reason to get aggressive with pest control. Mice and other creatures can chew on electrical wiring which can lead to live/hot wires inside your home’s walls.
Lightning Fires: Lightning is a leading cause of fires just after the five leaders described previously. Lightning protection systems are specifically designed to protect structure and personal property by providing a conduit to harness and safely ground a powerful lightning bolt. This isn’t a do-it-yourself job and is better left to professionals who will ensure the system is installed according to National Fire Protection Association, Lightning Protection Institute, and UL requirements. Protection should be provided for all electrical, telephone, cable, and satellite lines entering the structure. This will also protect major appliances, computers, and other electronic devices.
Oil-Saturated Rags: This includes painting rags AND those used to clean up cooking oil! Don’t try to wash them. Keep them safely in metal containers and toss them, but only when garbage is ready to be picked up.
Surviving Fires: Closing doors as mentioned above will prevent a fire from spreading rapidly and give you valuable time to escape. If a fire does start, call 911 immediately, and don’t place yourself in danger by attempting to put it out with an extinguisher. If there is heavy smoke, get down on the floor and crawl as there will be less smoke near the ground. Also, keep a fire ladder in your bedroom that will allow you to escape safely from a 2-3 story home. Keep a canvas bag on hand to put smaller pets in. They will panic and bite and scratch if you attempt to carry them.
There are more causes for fires but this brings you up to speed. As you can see, there is more to fire prevention than we can ever imagine. The goal of every fire department is to make sure no one has to suffer a fire. Let’s keep ourselves and our property owners, tenants, and renters safe.