From the President
Michael S. Williams
When man invented fire, he didn’t say, “Hey, let’s cook.” He said, “Great, now we can see naked bottoms in the dark.”
- Steven Moffat
Once upon a time I had a roommate who could not cook anything whatsoever without utilizing his toaster oven. I had never seen a toaster oven until I met him and to this day do not use one.
During our tenure together he managed to burn up several of them leaving a molten blob on the counter and a black backdrop of smoke soot. The development of the microwave oven no doubt saved many a home from burning down from the unskilled chefs of the world.
One of the most common calls for municipal fire departments is food on the stove creating enough smoke that neighbors think the structure is on fire. These calls can require significant response to remove the smoke utilizing large blowers. They are also completely preventable.
According the National Fire Prevention Association cooking and cooking appliance fires are the leading cause of residential structure fires. These fires are associated with civilian burn injuries and the third leading cause of residential fire deaths in the United States.
The National Fire Data Center creates various statistical reports including the “Topical Fire Report Series” that “explores facets of the U.S. fire problem that affect Americans in their daily lives.”
Data collection for these reports is primarily collected through the National Fire Incident Reporting System. This is an automated database that compiles data from fire departments throughout the U. S.
This incident based data is used for various purposes including fire prevention programs and building code development in the effort to further reduce property damage, injuries and deaths associated with fire.
The latest statistical data from the United States Fire Administration on cooking fires provided some interesting and yet consistent data for the period of 2008 through 2010.
• “On average, an estimated 164,500 cooking fires in residential buildings occur each year in the United States.” This is an increase of 9,800 fires from the previous reporting period.
• “By far, cooking remains the leading cause of all residential building fires and injuries.”
• “Residential building cooking fires occurred mainly in the evening hours from 4 to 9 pm, peaking from 5 to 8 pm, accounting for 26 percent of the fires.”
• “Residential building cooking fires peaked in November at 10 percent and declined to the lowest point during the summer months from June to August.”
• “Confined fires, those fires involving the contents of a cooking vessel without fire extension beyond the vessel, accounted for 94 percent of residential building cooking fires.”
• “Oil, fat and grease (51 percent) were the leading types of material ignited in non-confined cooking fires in residential buildings.”
Between 2004 and 2008, US fire departments responded to an average of 154,700 residential fires that involved cooking equipment and appliances. These fires caused an average of 460 civilian deaths, and average of 4,850 civilian injuries as well as $724 million in property damage. Unattended cooking was by far the leading contributing factor in these fires.
In order of significance the ignition source for these fires included ranges and cook tops taking the lead followed by ovens, rotisseries, microwave ovens, portable cooking equipment or warming units; grills, hibachis and barbecues, and also deep fryers.
Fire is not the primary source of injury with cooking related fires. Over 90% of the burns associated with cooking fires are a result of contact with hot equipment and appliances.
Once again, prevention is the answer. Never leave food cooking unattended. Use crock pots which are designed for slow and continuous cooking. Use the lowest effective temperature to cook. Do not store cooking fat or other flammable materials such as curtains, dishtowels or decorative items near your stove or oven. Keep children away from the kitchen work area.
Extinguishing a kitchen fire can be challenging. Do you know what is burning? Do you have the correct suppression tools such as a lid or fire extinguisher at the ready? Can you smother the fire by closing a door or placing a lid on top of a pot or skillet?
Kitchen fires can grow quickly and become profoundly dangerous. Call the fire department for assistance immediately. You can always call them back if you get the fire under control.
Never use water, baking soda, corn starch or flour on fires. Water will cause the fire to splatter and many kitchen foodstuffs are flammable thus making a fire worse if introduced.
As my roommate discovered, toasters and toaster ovens are a common source of kitchen fires. It is important to keep such devices clean and away from other flammable materials. The use of a knife or other metal object to remove burning materials can be fatal.
Remember to unplug electrical appliance when they are not in use. Keep electrical plugs well maintained. Do not overload kitchen outlets with “gang plugs” or “terminal strips.” The use of extension cords in the kitchen is profoundly dangerous.
Keeping your kitchen clean and free of clutter is also important. Plastic bags and paper packaging does not look menacing until it is too late.
The prevention of kitchen fires is one part common sense, one part prevention and one part preparation. Keeping your cooking equipment clean and well maintained, watching your cooking habits, having the ability to extinguish a small fire before it happens and taking burn precautions will improve your ability to prevent a kitchen fire.
While unrelated to cooking fires, one of the most hazardous places in your house is under the kitchen sink. In the event of a fire, the chemicals under your sink will compound the hazards to you and your family. Does everything you have under your sink need to be there?
Consider that many of the chemicals under your sink do not relate well to each other when mixed, particularly in a fire. Toxic gasses can quickly develop when mixed or burned. Perhaps the garage is a better place to store such supplies where they can be separated and better ventilated.
Careless cooking practices are a leading cause of residential fires and a significant source of injuries. Cook smart, pay attention and be ready for the unexpected. You many not only save your own home but your neighbors too.
Michael S. Williams