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  • Writer's pictureKimberly Van Hal, REALTOR

House Fires: Major Causes and How to Prevent Them

Homeowners have only three to four minutes to evacuate in the event of a fire.

Deadly house fires are growing in frequency and many homeowners have less time to get to safety. Newer homes and furnishings are burning faster, research shows, giving owners just three to four minutes to evacuate when a fire breaks out. Thirty years ago, when homes were built to different standards, owners had about 17 minutes to evacuate.

Cooking-Related Fires

Cooking fires are among the most common types of house fires. They're often caused by grease that becomes overheated on a stove or in an oven. Grease is highly flammable when it gets hot enough and can combust spontaneously, even without direct flame contact. Once the grease is ignited, it's exceedingly difficult to smother the flames.

Never leave the kitchen unattended when cooking in oil or when cooking food that produces grease, such as bacon. Most kitchen fires start because a homeowner leaves food cooking unsupervised on a stove or in the oven. By the time the fire is discovered, it's usually too late. Thoroughly clean your cookware to prevent grease from building up over time.

Small grease fires can be extinguished quickly by turning off the heat and smothering the fire with a metal lid. Sprinkling baking soda or salt on the fire will also put it out, as well. A class-B or class-K fire extinguisher is also recommended, although the chemicals can create a notable cleanup issue.

With serious fires, make no attempt to put out the fire. Instead, call the fire department at once. Under no circumstances should you dump water over the grease fire, as this can cause the hot grease to explode and throw burning grease over the area.

Portable cooking appliances, such as toasters and electric griddles, can also be a source of fires. Never leave these appliances unsupervised and make sure they're cool to the touch before storing them away. Toasters should be regularly cleaned of crumbs that might ignite if they build up inside the appliance.

During the outdoor cooking season, grills left unattended on a wooden deck or near the exterior walls of a home can also be a source of fire. A heated grill next to the deck railing or near a home's exterior walls – especially those clad in vinyl – can easily cause a house or garage fire if positioned too close.

Heating Appliances

Home space heaters and baseboard heaters can cause fire when fabrics and other combustibles are left too close to them. Heaters that need fuel such as kerosene are especially dangerous, as they can ignite or blow up if not properly watched.

Portable heaters should be kept at least three feet away from furniture, bedding, or other flammable items. Turn them off whenever leaving a room or sleeping and never leave the house with one running. Electrical baseboard heaters can cause fires if the wiring is faulty, or if draperies or other fabrics overheat when they come in contact with the coils.

Electrical Fires

Most typically, electrical fires occur because of short circuits or loose connections causing sparks that ignite building materials, or from circuits that are overloaded with current, causing wires to overheat. This type of fire is often deadly. This is probably because electrical fires often ignite in hidden locations and build into major fires before residents are aware of them.

Properly installed electrical systems are very safe, with several built-in protective features, but old, faulty wiring systems can be susceptible to short circuits and overloading. It's a good idea to have your wiring checked out by a professional electrician, especially if you live in an older home. And don't perform your own electrical repairs or improvements unless you understand the principles of electricity and have experience doing such work.


Smoking is hazardous to your health in many ways… including the potential for igniting fires from cigarette butts dropped on carpeting, furniture, or other flammable materials. These fires, too, are particularly deadly because they often ignite when a resident falls asleep.

Smoking in bed is especially dangerous. All it takes is a single stray ash to ignite a mattress, blanket, carpet, or piece of clothing. If you smoke, do it outside whenever possible, or smoke over a sink while using an ashtray to help reduce your fire risk.

Chemical Fires

Residential chemical fires can be especially deadly because they’re so unexpected. They occur most commonly when volatile vapors from gasoline and other petroleum liquids reach a flash-point temperature or when the fumes contact a source of open flame. Another common type of chemical fire is spontaneous combustion—the reaction of chemicals combining with oxygen in the air to produce enough heat to reach a flashpoint and ignite in flame.

Store all fuels and other chemicals in their proper containers and keep them in locations that are protected from heat. A common source of this kind of fire is gasoline or other fuel used to power lawn equipment. Tips for safely storing gasoline:

  • Use an approved container. The best storage container for gasoline is a red plastic container that is printed with labeling identifying it as an approved container.

  • Fill the container no more than 95% full. This allows a space for vapors to expand without rupturing the container.

  • Keep containers tightly sealed to prevent gas vapors from escaping and reaching a source of flame or spark.

  • Store the container at least fifty feet away from pilot lights and ignition sources, such as the heat, sparks, and flames from a water heater, space heater, or furnace. A detached garage or shed is an ideal spot to store these fuels. If no such space exists, store fuel containers on the outside wall of an attached garage, as far as possible from living spaces.

Another cause of chemical fires is when oily rags spontaneously heat up. Never store oil-soaked or chemical-soaked rags after they are used. And especially never stack them in a pile because heat can be spontaneously generated as the fumes combine with oxygen. Oily rags should be spread out in an outdoor location until the oil evaporates. Once thoroughly dry, they can be washed for reuse.

If possible, store paint thinners, mineral spirits, and other flammable liquids in a fireproof cabinet in a location well separated from living spaces. Make sure individual containers are kept tightly sealed.


New Year's Day, Christmas, and New Year's Eve are the prime time for fires caused by candles. Candles can add a wonderful touch to family dinners and holiday celebrations, but always extinguish them before leaving the room. Keep candle flames at least twelve inches from any materials that might ignite.

The matches and lighters used to light candles are equally dangerous if left in a place where children can reach them. If you have kids around, keep them locked in a secure place.

Consider other options for decorative lighting effects. There are particularly good battery-powered flameless luminaries that are remarkably realistic, right down to flickering in the same way that candles do.

Christmas Trees

Christmas trees are a holiday tradition for many families, but they come with some risks. Real evergreen trees tend to dry out over time, and by the end of the holiday season, they can pose a danger of flash fire. A hot light or a spark can immediately set the tree aflame, and such fires spread incredibly fast, engulfing a room in a matter of seconds.

Artificial trees made with vinyl or plastic needles are safer but an electrical fire from a bad wire in the light-bulb string or an overloaded outlet is still a risk. Never leave Christmas tree lights plugged in when you’re not at home or when you’re sleeping, no matter if the tree is natural or artificial. Check natural trees regularly to ensure they are not too dry. Make sure the water reservoir is kept full, which will prevent the tree from becoming tinder dry.

Older Christmas tree lights that use incandescent bulbs can generate quite a lot of heat and are best replaced by lights using LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs, which are cooler to the touch. But all light bulb strings should be regularly inspected and discarded if they show bare wires or other problems.

Holiday lights are sometimes used elsewhere in the home, such as around windows. If they’re faulty or used improperly, these light strings can cause draperies or other materials to ignite.

Bottom Line

Fortunately, with a few behavior modifications, you can prevent some of the most common house fires. The Fire Safety Research Institute recommends homeowners take the following precautions:

  • Make an escape plan. Every household should have a fire escape plan. Identify two ways to get out of every room. If you cannot escape, get behind a closed door, turn on a light, and dial 911 for help.

  • Check smoke alarms regularly. Three out of five home fires are attributed to properties without a working smoke detector, according to the National Fire Protection Agency. Check your smoke detectors monthly and change them out every ten years. Make sure they're installed in all bedrooms and on all levels of the home, including the basement.

  • Close bedroom doors when sleeping. A closed door can prevent deadly levels of carbon monoxide, smoke, and flames from entering a room. Further, a 900-degree Fahrenheit temperature difference can exist between a room with an open door and a closed door.

Smoke inhalation is the leading cause of death in home fires. Smoke from a home fire is thick, black, incredibly hot, and filled with toxic chemicals. It moves extremely fast. Smoke from a fire in a living can fill a one-story home - and everywhere that isn't blocked by a closed door - in a matter of minutes.


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