According to data gathered by the U.S. Fire Administration, 75% of deaths caused by property fires are residential. Residential fires also lead to fire-related injuries, representing 77% of total fire injuries, and account for 43% of fire dollar loss. The cause of residential fires ranges widely, from unattended candles to lightning. Protective measures are important for fire prevention, but it is also vital to make a fire safety plan in the event of a fire, as well as to understand important fire restoration safety measures.
Preventing Common Causes of House Fires
Common causes of home structure fires include:
- Cooking 49%;
- Heating equipment 14%;
- Electrical distribution or failures 10%;
- Intentional 8%;
- Smoking materials 5%.
The following sections will provide further detail to causes and contributing risks, with actionable tips for prevention and safety.
Kitchen and Cooking Fires
The number one cause of house fires is from cooking. Kitchen fires may occur from unattended cooking, ignition of kitchen utensils, food packaging, clothing, or housewares, and grease and oil fires. Kitchen fire safety and prevention include:
- Keeping appliances clean and in good repair.
- Unplugging electrical kitchen appliances when not in use.
- Installing smoke detectors near, but not directly above cooking areas.
- Wiping up flammable materials such as grease and oil spills.
- Never leaving cooking food unattended.
- Keeping flammable items such as dish towels, pot holders, food packaging, etc, away from the stove.
- Knowing how to safely put out a grease fire by smothering it with a pot lid or using baking soda or salt.
- Never microwaving metal materials
- Shutting the door and turning off appliances such as the stove or microwave in the event a fire occurs inside the appliance.
- Upholding child and pet safety measures in the kitchen.
Chimneys and Fireplaces
Studies on the number of vulnerable people in the United States exposed to residential wood smoke found that nearly 30 million people in the U.S. live in a home where wood burning is used for heating the home. Utilizing wood as the main source of household heating includes heating stoves and fireplaces.
It is important to upkeep and maintain stoves, fireplaces, and chimneys, just the same as it is for other household structures and appliances. Neglecting upkeep of these crucial components may increase the likelihood of failures that result in chimney fires and the release of carbon monoxide into the home that may cause respiratory illness or death.
Regular inspection, maintenance, and upkeep of a wood-burning heat source may include:
- Inspecting the chimney exterior for any irregularities, cracks, holes, corrosion, stains, loose sections, or for signs of leaning or instability.
- Installing or replacing a chimney cap that reduces the likelihood of damage to a chimney from weather and wildlife.
- Inspect and or install waterproofing to the chimney.
- Looking for leaks or stains on the roof near or around the chimney which could indicate a damaged flue liner.
- Inspecting the flue and damper for soot, creosote, or disrepair.
- Regularly have the chimney swept and cleaned professionally.
- Inspect mortar joints and bricks for signs of wear or water damage.
- Have your chimney inspected annually.
- Install a spark shield, heatproof glassdoor, or fan.
- Clean soot from the chimney or stove after each use.
- Burn dry and seasoned woods that provide maximum burn time with a low build-up of creosote. This may include hardwoods such as oak, hard maple, ash, birch, or beech.
The Chimney Safety Institute of America recommends hiring a professional such as a fireplace and chimney contractor to inspect, sweep, and repair your chimney, noting that chimneys should be swept after ⅛” of soot buildup.
Electrical Failures and Fires
Electricity is crucial to modern homes, providing light, heat, and power to devices. Fires resulting from electrical issues are the third most common cause of residential fires, but electrical distribution and light equipment are ranked first as a cause of property damage. Wiring and related equipment account for 7% of all home fires, and 9% of home fire deaths. Performing regular maintenance and being aware of potential issues and how to address them is essential to preventing electrical failures and fires.
Indoor electrical safety and fire prevention maintenance includes:
- Having all electrical work performed by a licensed electrician.
- Plugging all major appliances directly into an outlet; do not use extension cords.
- Installing an arc-fault circuit interrupter (AFCIs) to automatically shut off electricity in dangerous situations.
- Installing ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) that shut off electrical circuits in shock hazard situations.
- Testing AFCIs and GFCIs once a month.
- Ensuring electrical cords do not run under carpets or through doors. Extension cords are meant for temporary use.
- Using light bulbs with the correct wattage. Hot lightbulbs may ignite a fire in nearby flammable materials.
- Regularly checking electrical cords for appliances and devices. If a cord displays wear and tear, take it to a professional.
- Ensuring that all house wiring, electrical sockets, and light switches have faceplates.
- Only using one heat-producing appliance (toaster, coffee maker, iron, microwave, etc.) per electrical socket.
- Unplugging appliances when not in use.
Outdoor electrical fire safety may include:
- Only using lighting and power tools that are listed by a qualified test laboratory to ensure they are made for outdoor use.
- Storing electrical tools indoor when not in use.
- Unplugging electrical tools when not in use.
- Keeping the area around the electrical meter free and clear of debris.
- Always checking for damage to an extension cord before use, and only use extension cords that are listed by a qualified test laboratory.
- Never using ladders or tall equipment near power lines.
- Always having trees near power lines trimmed by professional arborists.
- Calling the local utility before starting deep excavation projects to ensure that the area is clear of any underground electrical lines.
Natural disasters such as wildfires, earthquakes, and thunderstorms not only pose the threat of health hazards and property damage but can also ignite residential fires. Check with The National Center for Disaster Preparedness US Natural Hazards Index map to discover if your place of residence is in a natural disaster hazardous zone.
Consider the various side effects that natural disasters pose to your home and health. This may include:
- The danger of electrical shock and fire from downed power lines.
- Respiratory infections and damage from airborne or waterborne pollutants and toxins.
- Mold and fungal growth from fire and water damage that can cause property damage and health issues.
- Disrupted utility and gas lines, or exposed electrical wiring.
Protecting your home from natural disasters may include:
- Installing wind-resistant garage doors;
- Caulking around doors and windows;
- Lining the bottom of doors with moist towels;
- Using flexible connections for gas and water lines;
- Hanging heat resistant curtains;
- Securing and bolting the chimney to the house;
- Creating a fire defensible zone 30 feet around the residence;
- Using fire-resistant building materials;
- Trimming and managing trees;
- Clearing combustible debris from the property.
Individuals Most at Risk During House Fires
Residential fires pose a threat of injury and death to all family members, though some may be more at-risk. One-third of all home fire fatalities involve persons aged 65 or older. Some family members may be more vulnerable to fire due to lack of mobility, a lack of understanding of the fire escape plan, or inability to sense fire danger.
Seniors and the Elderly
It is important to consider the specific risks that seniors and the elderly may have in preventing, reacting to, or escaping a home fire. A few preventative measures for fire safety for seniors and the elderly may include:
- Discussing fire-safe practices such as monitoring cooking appliances in the kitchen to reduce the likelihood of kitchen fires.
- Discussing the risks of smoking and using candles.
- Inspecting, checking, and replacing smoke detectors on an annual schedule. Smoke alarms can provide seniors with extra time to escape, especially if they have issues with mobility.
- Considering getting a notification device such as a bed shaker or bright light for when a smoke detector alarm goes off. Those with a hearing loss may not be able to hear a smoke detector by itself.
- Discussing careful use of heating devices, and having a professional or contractor install any heating equipment. If a space heater is used, purchase one that has an automatic shut-off in case it is tipped over.
- For seniors in older homes, be sure to have all electrical wiring assessed by an electrician or contractor.
- Create an escape plan that includes multiple evacuation routes. Practice the escape plan at least twice a year, and be sure to keep escape routes clear of clutter which may act as a tripping hazard.
Individuals With Disabilities
Disabilities impact many Americans in various ways including mobility, cognition, hearing, and vision. It is important to assess the types of prevention and support needed for the type of disability a person might have. This may include:
- Installing fire alarms that offer additional notifications rather than relying on sound. This may include fire alarms that produce strobe lighting, bed shaking, and vibrating pads. Fire alarms may also connect with strobe lights outside of the home to catch the attention of neighbors.
- Choosing bedrooms and living spaces that are on a ground floor to create ease-of-access to escape routes for those with mobility disabilities.
- Careful planning and curation of an escape plan that accommodates any particular needs and keeping the route clear of clutter to avoid trip or fall hazards.
- Testing fire alarms every month and practicing escape plans multiple times throughout the year to ensure the plan is understood.
Home/Family Fire Escape Plan
Having a fire escape plan is crucial to ensuring the health and safety of your family and residents of the home. Considerations for developing a fire-escape plan include:
- Including all members of the family and residents of the home in the planning process.
- Walking through the home and inspecting all possible escape routes.
- Drawing a floor plan map of the home with indicators and markings for proper escape routes and locations of fire alarms.
- Maintaining escape routes in the home and keeping them clear of clutter and trip hazards.
- Selecting an outside meeting space where the family and residents can meet after escaping the home.
- Creating an emergency communication plan to ensure all members of the family know who to contact if they cannot find one another.
- If there are children, elderly, or members of the family that need assistance to escape, designating and assigning a member of the family or resident that is responsible to help them. It can also be helpful to assign a backup in the case that the original assignee is not home.
- If a door or window in the house has security bars, ensuring that they are fitted with a quick-release mechanism.
- Ensuring that all fire escape tools such as window letters are easily accessible.
- Practicing fire escape plan drills throughout the year to ensure that all practices and processes are understood and followable.
- Teaching practices such as STOP, DROP, and ROLL, as well as how to safely test doorknobs for heat, or crawling under smoke.
- Practicing methods such as sealing yourself in for safety by closing doors, using towels to cover air vents, opening windows for fresh air, and using flashlights to indicate to the fire department that you were unable to escape.
Fire and Smoke Damage Restoration
Preventative and escape measures can help your family stay safe in the event of a fire. However, if a fire does occur in a residence, it is important to consider and adhere to safe and proper restoration practices. This may include hiring a contractor that is licensed in your state or a restoration company to help you with your restoration and repair. Utilizing a general contractor who must have a certificate of insurance will prove that you are protected and covered by the general liability insurance requirements of your state. Consider the following measures for smoke damage and fire restoration:
- Before entering a property, confirm that it is safe. This may include using a fire damage contractor, general contractor, or personnel from a utility company.
- Assess the damage, take pictures, and contact your insurance company before beginning any repairs.
- Sort salvageable and destroyed property.
- Secure the property by removing debris, installing a security fence, and boarding up or tarping what is left of the structure to protect any remaining property.
- Begin demolishing, water mitigation, and drying out to eliminate or reduce hazardous mold and fungal growth.
- Properly clean smoke and soot. This may include sanitization, antimicrobials, and deodorizing agents.
- Begin construction and restoration. This may include rebuilding or replacing the structure or highly damaged areas. Using an electrician or certified contractor to replace electrical wiring. Replacing drywall and paint, flooring materials, fixtures, and other structural aspects or appliances.
Resources for Fire Safety and Prevention
Residential fires can be tragic both to health and safety, as well as economically and emotionally. There are resources available for further fire safety prevention and tools, information on fire dangers, as well as recovery information. Consider the following resources:
- American Red Cross. The red cross offers return and recovery guides for families that have experienced a residential fire.
- U.S. Fire Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency. The U.S. Fire Administration and FEMA offer information and resources for families that have experienced a residential fire.
- Salvation Army. The Salvation Army offers disaster-relief services and provides training, food services, emotional and spiritual care, networks of emergency services, donations management, and recovery services.
- National Fire Protection Association. The National Fire Protection Association offers videos, information, and product recommendations to help with fire prevention and safety measures.
- Ready. Ready is an official website from the U.S. government that provides detailed information regarding fire prevention, safety, and restoration.
- Safe Kids WorldWide. Safe Kids WorldWide offers resources that parents and teachers can use to teach fire and burn safety to children.
- National Safety Council. The NSC offers detailed information and resources for minimizing fire risks, maintaining fire safety tools and prevention measures, as well as information on how and when to use a fire extinguisher.
- Center for Disease Control. The CDC offers fire injury prevention activities, smoke alarm installation guides, fire safety education and curriculum material, as well as a guide to safe consumer products.
- Public Broadcasting Service. PBS offers videos and supporting material to help teach children the dangers of fire and fire safety.
- Firefighters Burn Institute. The Firefighters Burn Institute offers information on burn treatment facilities, recovery programs for burn survivors, and fire and burn prevention information and education.