A recent fire at a 16,000 square foot mansion on the waterfront in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, took the lives of six people including two grandparents and their four grandchildren. The cause of the fire, according to investigators, was a 16-foot tall Christmas tree that the owners left lit most of the time in the great room of the house. An electrical failure ignited the two-month-old tree, which swiftly fueled the fire in the rest of the house.
The lack of a sprinkler system inside the house or fire hydrants and other water sources near the home made it extremely challenging for fire fighters who responded to the call.
But that is just one example. The cold weather often means that people are spending more time at home and all of this time indoors increases the risks of house fires. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) says there are more than 360,000 home structure fires each year, resulting in about $6-8 billion dollars in damage.
The causes of these fires range from food left unattended on the stove to candles left burning. From the moment a fire starts to the point where the structure is fully engulfed is usually less than two minutes, which is why it is so important for occupants to get out of the home as quickly as possible and not try to put out a large fire themselves.
A majority of these fires are preventable with some forethought and care to minimize the risks.
“From my experience, the five most preventable causes are cooking-related fires, unattended candles, burdened electrical connections, lighting/appliance malfunctions and smoking cigarettes or cigars,” explained Damon Gersh, CR, president and CEO of Maxons Restorations, Inc. in New York City.
Here are the eight most common causes of house fires as identified by the National Fire Protection Association.
Who doesn’t love the romantic glow of candlelight? But, even if you enjoy their fragrance and ambiance, you might want to think twice before lighting a candle and leaving the room. From 2007-2011, the NFPA says there were an average of 10,630 fires in the U.S. that were started by candles, causing 115 deaths, 903 injuries and approximately $418 million in property damage. That is an average of 29 candle fires per day.
About one-third of these fires started in bedrooms, causing 39% of the associated deaths and 45% of the associated injuries. More than half of all candle fires start because of candles that were left too close to flammable items. They should always be kept at least 12 inches away from anything that can burn.
Other causes of candle fires include leaving them unattended in a room or someone playing with the candles. Even something as simple as knocking a candle over when someone bumps a table they're sitting on or a pet brushing against one is enough to spark a fire.
There are more candle fires in December and January, and the top three days for fires are Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
- Never leave a candle burning near flammable items.
- Never leave a candle burning in a child’s room or an unoccupied room.
- Make sure candles fit securing into candle holders so they won’t tip over.
- Blow out any candles before leaving a room or going to sleep.
While the number of fires caused by smoking is trending downward, the NFPA found that there were still an average of 17,600 related fires per year resulting in 490 deaths and more than $516 million in property damage.
A 2013 NFPA report said the number of smoking-material related fires had dropped by 73% from 2008 to 2011, due in large part to a decline in the number of smokers. New regulations for creating non-flammable mattresses, clothing and furnishings also helped to fuel the drop.
Interestingly, the risk of dying in a house fire caused by smoking materials increases with age up to age 85. Almost half the individuals killed in these types of house fires were 65 or older.
- If you smoke, consider smoking outside.
- Use wide, sturdy ashtrays to catch butts and ashes.
- Look for cigarette butts under furniture and between seat cushions to make sure no lit butts have fallen someplace where they can’t be seen.
- Don’t smoke in bed, when you’re tired or around medical oxygen.
3. Electrical & Lighting
Electrical fires can have a number of different origins. They can be caused by an equipment malfunction, from an overloaded circuit or extension cord, or from an overheated light bulb, space heater, washer, dryer or other appliance.
According to the NFPA, in 2011 approximately 47,700 home structure fires were caused by some sort of electrical failure or malfunction. These resulted in 418 deaths, 1,570 injuries and $1.4 billion in property damage. Wiring accounted for 63% of the fires reported from 2007-2011 that involved electrical distribution or lighting equipment.
- Don’t overload outlets or electrical cords.
- Make sure you have the right cord for the job – inside cords for inside, heavy duty/outside cords for outdoor use.
- Don’t leave Christmas lights, Christmas trees, or halogen lights on overnight or when not at home.
- Consider having an electrician perform an annual checkup of your home’s wiring.
4. Dryers and washing machines
Clothes dryer fires happen more often than one might think, accounting for 16,800 home structure fires in 2010 and doing more than $236 million in property damage. The most frequent causes of fires in dryers are lint/dust (29%) and clothing (28%). In washers, they are wire or cable insulation (26%), the appliance housing (21%) or the drive belt (15%).
Dryers were involved in 92% of these appliance fires and the risk of fire was basically the same for both gas and electric-powered dryers.
- Clean the lint screen frequently and don’t run the dryer without it.
- For gas and propane dryers, make sure there aren’t any leaks in the lines.
- Vent the dryer to the outside of the house and ensure nothing blocks the vent pipe.
- Clean the vent pipe and the area where the screen is housed.
- Keep the area around the dryer free of combustible materials.
Unlike other types of house fires, which occur more frequently in the winter months, those caused by lightning are more likely to happen in June, July and August in the late afternoon or early evening. From 2007-2011, NFPA says there were an average of 22,600 fires per year caused by lightning strikes.
Lightning poses the greatest risk outdoors and frequently strikes the highest point on a structure. It can also ignite wildfires.
- Stay away from doors and windows during an electrical storm.
- Do not use corded phones, computers, TVs or other electrical equipment during storms.
- Unplug major electronics – TVs, stereo equipment, computers and microwaves to minimize damage if there is a lightning strike close by.
- Avoid plumbing such as sinks, baths and faucets during a thunderstorm.
6. Children playing with fire
The NFPA says that children start an average of 7,100 home fires per year, causing approximately $172 million in property damage. July is the most active month for these fires, and males start the majority (83%) of them. Younger children under the age of six are more likely to start fires inside, using matches or a lighter as the ignition source. The most frequent sites for fires are the bedroom (39%), kitchen (8%) and living room/family room/den (6%). Older children are more likely to start fires outside.
- Keep matches, lighters and other ignition sources out of the reach of children.
- Teach children fire safety at an early age.
- Make sure children have adequate supervision.
7. Christmas trees
Like candle fires, Christmas tree fires are more common during the holidays, with 43% occurring in December and 39% in January. The NFPA says an average of 230 fires are attributed to Christmas trees each year and they are more likely to be serious because of the factors that can contribute to the fire: a dry tree, electrical lights and a fuel supply (gifts) under the tree. Christmas tree fires cause an average of $18.3 million in property damage each year.
The most common causes are electrical failures (32%), having the tree too close to a heat source like a fireplace or wood stove (17%) or being too close to candles (7%).
- Keep live trees well watered and dispose of them before they become dry.
- Turn off tree lights before leaving the house or going to bed.
- Check lights for any shorts or other electrical issues before putting them on the tree.
The number one source of house fires is cooking – usually leaving pots or pans unattended on the stove while you run away to do something for “just a minute.” The NFPA says that 40% of all house fires, or an average of 156,600 per year, start this way, causing approximately $853 million in property damage. Two-thirds of the fires started because the food or other materials caught fire.
Fires are more likely to start on a range (57%) as compared to the oven (16%), mainly due to frying. Most injuries occur when the cook tried to put out the fire.
Several years ago in Florida, investigators saw a pattern of fraudulent house fires that started in the kitchen when the owners left food cooking on the stove while they ran to the store for a missing ingredient. Grease would catch on fire and the flames spread from there. A red flag for adjusters is when the homeowner doesn’t call the fire department to report the fire.
- Be alert when cooking and don’t leave food unattended.
- Don’t throw water on a grease fire, put a lid on the pan to smother the fire.
- If an oven fire flares up, turn off the oven and leave the door shut until the fire extinguishes itself.
- Keep clothing, pot holders, paper towels and other flammable items away from fires.
- Having working smoke detectors in the house and keep a fire extinguisher nearby just in case.
“A lot of the fire damage that we are asked to restore could have been prevented if the property owner had not left the kitchen while cooking on the stove or would have avoided overusing extension cords,” explains Jack White, vice president of technical services at Rainbow International.
- Check yourself for injuries and get treatment if necessary.
- Find a place to stay. Your local disaster relief service such as the Red Cross can help and provide food and other necessities. Don’t forget to find a safe place for your pets.
- Do not enter the structure until it is safe to do so.
- Examine the home. Talk to firefighters about what can be salvaged.
- When safe to enter the structure, check for important documents like birth certificates, social security cards, insurance policies and drivers’ licenses.
- Notify your insurance company about the fire.
- Keep a log of everyone you speak to concerning the fire. Memories get fuzzy and there will be a lot of details to keep track of in the coming weeks.
- Make a list of the household contents and take pictures of damaged items.
- Keep track of receipts for expenses such as clothing, medications, meals and lodging.
- Contact family members and close friends to let them know what happened, especially if you will be moving to temporary housing.
- Select a service provider and be sure to check references.