According to the National Fire Protection Associations, there were 51% fewer home fires in the U.S. in 2020 than in 1980. That’s encouraging, but it’s just not good enough for me, America—there are still an estimated 356,500 home fires per year in this country.
I don’t want to your home to be burnt to a cinder, so I spoke to retired California firefighter Bill Jurewich about the seven biggest mistakes people make when it comes to fire preparedness.
Unsafe cooking practices
Careless ccooking is by far the leading cause of household fires—nearly half of all home fires start in the kitchen. The most obvious advice for avoiding kitchen fires is “don’t ever use your kitchen for anything.” But should taht tip prove unworkable, a good starting point is never leaving a lit stove unattended. Like ever. Even if you’re slow-cooking soup over a low heat, keep an eye on it. Keep flammable things—dishtowels, decorations, etc.—away from heating elements. Keep appliances clean so built up grease or crumbs don’t cause a sudden flare up. Don’t cook when you’re drunk, sleepy, or high on PCP.
Here’s a kitchen-fire prevention tip you might not have thought, courtesy of Bill Jurewich: “You’d be surprised at the number of people who store things in their ovens and don’t think to check it before they preheat something,” he said. “Don’t store anything in your oven, and make sure it’s empty before you turn it on.”
Not cleaning out your dryer’s lint trap
According to the FEMA, almost 3,000 fires are caused by clothes dryers annually in the United States. Lint is so flammable that some camping experts recommend using it for kindling, and dryers produce heat—I’m sure you can see where this is going.
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Most of the lint in your dryer gets trapped in the lint filter, so clean that out after every use. But you also need to clean the dryer vent and exhaust duct at least once a year. Clean behind the machine too, and don’t dry anything that might prove flammable. That includes foam, rubber, plastic, and anything soiled with a flammable substance like grease, gasoline, or cooking oil.
Not maintaining your smoke alarms
We all know you need smoke alarms, but have to put them in the right places too. “You want to put them somewhere where they’ll give you enough warning,” Jurewich says. The basic rule-of-thumb: one on every level of your home and in each bedroom and hallway. But each home is different, so can call your local fire department for advice.
You also have to maintain your smoke detectors. Don’t wait for the annoying low-battery “chirp” to put in a new Duracell. “You should change your smoke alarm batteries when you change your clocks [for the start and end of Daylist Saving Time],” Jurewich says.
You should also make sure your detectors are regularly dusted/vacuumed so dirt doesn’t clog up the sensor, and replace the units entirely every decade or so. Also, check that your smoke detectors are detecting every so often with the “test” button—that’s what it’s for.
Not maintaining your wiring
Another easily preventable cause of house fires is faulty wiring. If you’re blowing fuses all the time, or your lights tend to dim when you use a power-sucking appliance, you should have your wiring checked. But it’s not just the “in the walls” wiring that can causes conflagrations. Unmaintained, frayed, cracked or old electrical cords can easily spark a blaze, and so can overloading your outlets by plugging in a ton of power-sucking appliances. Use a power strip with a built in surge protector.
Keep special eye out for your extension cords. “If those things get compressed, or pinched in a doorway, they’re seriously compromised. Setting an extension cord up in an area where it’s going to see any foot traffic is definitely not a good idea,” Jurewich said. “You know those old, brown extension cords we grew up with? Those are for shit. Get rid of those.”
Using unsafe appliances
Older, unmaintained appliances are another potential source of house fires. But perfectly maintained appliances can cause fires too, especially ones that that are designed to produce heat—like space heaters. Read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for all your home appliances and have them regularly served or replaced.
“You know what appliance causes a lot of fires that no one thinks about?” Jurewich said, “The ‘fart fan’ in the bathroom. That thing gets a lot of use, and usually doesn’t get any maintenance. People tend to ignore it if it starts to sound funny, but if it starts to make noises, it should probably be replaced.”
Leaving lit candles sitting around
I assumed there wasn’t a lot to say about leaving lit candles unattended (beyond “don’t do that”) but Jurewich brought up something I hadn’t considered: Incense. “You might light a cone of incense in the bathroom and leave it, but if your cat knocks it over, and there’s towels or tissue nearby—you just don’t want to leave anything smoldering in another room,” Jurewich says.
Not having an escape plan
Even if you take all the recommended precautions for preventing fires, it could still happen, so you should have a plan in place for everyone in your house to exit quickly and safely in the event of a fire. This is particularly important if you have children—a practiced drill can prevent panic. Check out the National Fire Protection Association’s guidelines for in depth info on planning your fire escape.