To survivalists, fire has the potential to be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, a single precious ember can be painstakingly nursed into a campfire in the wilderness. This sort of fire can stave off hypothermia, and also provide the means to cook food, purify water, and deter predators. We’ve said time and time again how making fire in a survival scenario is one of the most important skills humans possess.

At the same time, fire has the potential for destruction on an immense scale. Wildfires reduce scenic landscapes to barren ash, vehicle fires can turn a car or truck into a blazing inferno in seconds, and structure fires kill thousands of Americans each year. The same spark that sustains life can just as easily end it.

411: Fire Facts

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If you pick up a copy of Issue 15 of our printed magazine, which goes on sale August 12th, you’ll be able to read more statistics about fire in our 411 column. There, John Schwartze shares the number of total fire-related deaths per year, and compares them to the other most common causes of death—heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, and accidents. Additionally, he lists the top three most common causes of residential fires.

Due to the format of our one-page 411 column, we didn’t have room to go into detail about these causes of fires. But, don’t worry—we’ll be doing so right here and now. We’ll outline each of the top ten common causes of residential fires, and discuss fire prevention methods that apply to each of the ten.

Residential Fire Statistics

Residential fires, deaths, injuries, and dollar loss over time. Source: usfa.fema.gov

Residential fires, deaths, injuries, and dollar loss over time. Source: usfa.fema.gov

While you may think that your home won’t be affected by a structure fire, the statistics paint a different picture. The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) estimates that 379,500 residential buildings were affected by fire in 2014. This led to…

  • 2,765 deaths
  • 12,075 injuries
  • $6.9 billion in damage

So, it’s quite clear that fire poses a serious threat to both your property and your safety. Statistically, it may not be as high of a health risk as heart disease or even vehicle accidents, but it’s still something every home preparedness plan should address. Otherwise, all your carefully organized survival gear and stockpiled resources could go up in smoke.

The danger of residential fires is obvious, but in order to prevent them, it’s crucial to understand why residential fires happen. Therefore, we need to study the leading causes of building fires. Here are ten of the most common causes of home structure fires, according to the USFA:

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As you can see (and as we mention in our 411 column in Issue 15) cooking, heating, and electrical malfunctions are the three most common causes of residential fires. However, there are many other dangers to be aware of, including open flames, appliances, smoking, and even arson. For the sake of simplicity, we included a few remaining causes in the “other” category—unintentional, careless, other heat, equipment malfunction (excluding electronics and appliances), cause under investigation, and other equipment.

In the following segments, we’ll discuss each of these ten noteworthy causes of residential fires, and offer some tips on how to prevent each one from damaging your home.

Cooking

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According to the USFA, this category includes “confined cooking fires, stoves, ovens, fixed and portable warming units, deep fat fryers, and open grills”.

Cooking-related fires are by far the most common type, resulting in half of all residential fires. These fires often start when items are left in the stove, oven, or toaster unattended, and can accelerate rapidly due to oil and other flammable materials nearby. Here are some tips from the American Red Cross on how to avoid kitchen fires:

  1. Never leave cooking food unattended, even for a second. If you need to leave the room, turn off the heat.
  2. Set a timer, in order to remember to check on your food regularly throughout the cooking process.
  3. Clean cooking surfaces thoroughly on a regular basis, to prevent the accumulation of flammable grease.
  4. Keep any flammable items far away from heat sources. Don’t leave items on top of the toaster oven, or hang anything above the stove.
  5. Always double-check that all kitchen appliances are turned off before going to bed or leaving home.

Heating

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According to the USFA, this category includes “confined chimney or flue fire, fire confined to fuel burner/boiler malfunction, central heating, fixed and portable local heating units, fireplaces and chimneys, furnaces, boilers, and water heaters”.

Unsurprisingly, fireplaces, heaters, and furnaces are near the top of the list of residential fire sources. According to the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), half of home heating equipment fires occur during the coldest months—December, January, and February. The NFPA recommends keeping a three-foot safe zone around any heating devices, and not placing any flammable items within this area. Also, fireplaces should be cleaned and inspected by professionals every year, and should be fitted with sturdy screens to block embers from drifting into the room.

Electrical Malfunction

According to the USFA, this category includes “electrical distribution, wiring, transformers, meter boxes, power switching gear, outlets, cords, plugs, surge protectors, electric fences, lighting fixtures, and electrical arcing”.

Here’s a PSA video from the NFPA that shows what not to do:

Inspect extension cords and cables, and avoid running them across doorways or under rugs. If there’s any doubt about your home’s wiring integrity, call an electrician for a full home inspection. Be especially careful around the following appliances, as they are the leading causes of residential fires:

  • Electrical distribution or lighting equipment (responsible for 48% of electrical fires)
  • Washers and dryers
  • Fans
  • Portable space heaters (see heater category above)

Open Flame

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According to the USFA, this category includes “torches, candles, matches, lighters, open fire, ember, ash, rekindled fire, and backfire from internal combustion engine”.

Candles account for a large portion of this category, with over half of candle fires occurring due to combustible material being left too close to the flame. So, be sure to keep candles far away from anything that can burn, and always blow them out before leaving or falling asleep. Carefully extinguish matches or leftover embers with water if necessary, and have a fire extinguisher on hand.

Appliances

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According to the USFA, this category includes all major home appliances, from TVs and clothes dryers to electric blankets and phonographs (yes, USFA actually lists these).

Most home appliances produce heat, and poorly maintained or positioned appliances can easily act as a source of ignition. Check your dryer lint trap frequently, because a thick layer of lint in a hot environment is a recipe for disaster. Turn off and/or unplug appliances that generate large amounts of heat, such as heating blankets and hair dryers, before leaving them unattended.

Intentional / Arson

Fire prevention matches 6

According to the USFA, this category is applicable when the “cause of ignition is intentional or fire is deliberately set”.

The NFPA states that three of every four intentional fires are started outdoors. These fires may grow into wildfires and affect homes (see exposure category below). However, most property loss and casualties result from fires set inside buildings. The statistics show that most arson or intentional structure fires happen…

  • In the bedroom at home
  • In the bathroom at public properties (apartment complexes, stores, offices, or schools)
  • Between 3pm and midnight

Defending your home against hostile arson may prove difficult, but smoke alarms and security cameras can assist with this task. Also, have fire extinguishers on hand and properly maintained. For more information about intentional fires in homes, read the NFPA Intentional Fires Report.

Smoking

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According to the USFA, this category includes “cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and heat from undetermined smoking materials”.

Smoking-related fires declined 30% between 2003 and 2011, likely as a result of new “fire safe” cigarette materials. However, they are still prevalent, especially among adults over the age of 65. NFPA recommends smoking only outside, using a sturdy ashtray on a non-flammable surface, and dousing the ashes with water or sand after smoking. Be extra cautious if you’re around individuals who are sleepy or have been drinking alcohol, as they may forget to fully extinguish smoking materials.

Exposure

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According to the USFA, this category includes residential fires “caused by heat spreading from another hostile fire”. For example, a home that burned down as a result of a wildfire in the surrounding area would be included in this category.

This is the single most difficult category of residential fire to avoid, as it’s often entirely out of the control of the homeowner. If an entire neighborhood is engulfed in flames, there is little that can be done to save a residence. Nevertheless, be extra vigilant about keeping dry and flammable materials to a minimum on your property. Cut down dry grass, remove loose wood and debris, and be sure your roofing material is fire-resistant. Old wood shingles should be replaced, as they may catch fire easily.

As always, keep many fire extinguishers and water sources around your home to prevent small outdoor fires from growing.

Natural

Fire prevention chemicals fertilizer 8

This category designation seems vague at first, but the USFA defines it clearly. The category includes fires “caused by the sun’s heat, spontaneous ignition, chemicals, lightning, static discharge, high winds, storms, high water including floods, earthquakes, volcanic action, and animals”.

Natural fires can occur through innocuous sources like sunlight or static electricity. Spontaneous combustion of chemical products, oily rags, trash, or abandoned materials is also a major risk. To prevent this, store all flammable materials safely:

  • Agricultural products, like fertilizer, should remain dry and well-ventilated. Check temperature regularly.
  • Rags soaked in oil should be thoroughly dried and stored in a covered fire-safe metal can.
  • If you have an older vehicle or are transporting flammable materials, consider parking outside your garage or on the street.

Playing with Heat Source

Fire prevention lighter flame 5

According to the USFA, this category includes “all fires caused by individuals playing with any materials contained in the categories above as well as fires where the factors contributing to ignition include playing with heat source. Children playing with fire are included in this category.”

As the saying goes, if you play with fire, you’re going to get burned.

Playing with fire is a major problem among children and teenagers, and generally occurs due to unsupervised use of lighters, matches, or fireworks. Most of these fires occur during the month of July, and during the hours of 2pm to 8pm. Older male children are statistically most likely to start these fires, although 43% were started by kids under the age of 6.

The solution to this problem is somewhat obvious. Any child who enters your home should be educated about fire safety, and always supervised while handling fire sources. Remove and secure matches, lighters, torches, and other sources of temptation. As for adults, take care handling fireworks and other fire sources—and whatever you do, don’t be like this guy:

Conclusions

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If most of these tips seemed like common sense, that’s because they should be. While home fires can and do occur unpredictably, it’s very possible to improve your odds by following basic fire safety procedures. Of course, you’ll also want fire extinguishers, fire alarms, and carbon monoxide detectors on hand and properly serviced. A family bug-out plan is also key, in case fire prevention measures fail. By adhering to all these suggestions, you’ll be prepared in case you ever find yourself in the line of fire.


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