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House fire safety tips

How to prevent fires, according to firefighters

Profile picture of Kathryn Parkman
by Kathryn Parkman ConsumerAffairs Research Team
fireman walking with hose

The ConsumerAffairs research team asked fire chiefs, captains, lieutenants and marshals across the United States about the best ways to prevent house fires. If you’re looking for quick, practical fire safety advice, here are some tips:

  • Check your smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors
  • Practice a fire escape plan
  • Invest in fire extinguishers and sprinklers
  • Never leave cooking unattended
  • Always dispose of smoking materials (including cigarettes) properly
  • Clean your chimney, oven and dryer vents regularly
  • Avoid using extension cords and portable space heaters

Firefighters emphasize the importance of being proactive and paying attention. For example, you should be careful where you store flammable and explosive materials.

“We see explosive materials — paint materials, thinner, gasoline, propane — by the hot water heater, and that’s not good,” said one fire captain in Oklahoma.

Tips to prevent house fires

Some of the worst cases of preventable house fires involve cooking and kitchen accidents, faulty electrical wiring and portable heating appliances. Candles and other unattended open flames are also a hazard, according to firefighters we surveyed and the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA).

Cooking and kitchen fire safety
Unattended equipment is the leading cause in home cooking fires. Most of the time, food being cooked is left unattended because a person fell asleep or became distracted in another room. Here are some cooking and kitchen safety tips:
  • Keep paper, towels and curtains away from stove or burner
  • Don’t obstruct vents on microwaves or toasters
  • Unplug appliances when you aren't using them
  • Turn pot handles away from the stove and other burners
  • Don’t use the self-cleaning feature on an oven with food buildup or debris
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions when lighting pilot lights
  • Never put metal (including aluminum foil) in a microwave
  • Don’t overfill pans with oil or grease
Electrical fire safety
Faulty outlets and extension cords are two of the leading causes of electrical fires. Firefighters put out many fires in older homes with outdated wiring systems (aluminum or knob-and-tube wiring and 60-amp electrical systems, for example). To help prevent electrical fires:
  • Look for signs of overloading or wear and tear on electrical cords and plugs
  • Use a surge protector if you have a home office
  • If possible, rearrange appliances so they each have their own outlet
  • Avoid running extension cords, especially under rugs
  • Be sure light bulbs are equal or lower wattage than the manufacturer recommends
  • Never cut off the third prong (the ground wire) on a power cord
  • If you trip a breaker, have an electrician inspect it before turning it back on
Heat-producing appliance safety
Heat-producing appliances are also a major hazard. Always unplug appliances like curling irons, toasters and electric kettles after you use them. If possible, use central heating. If you must use a portable space heater, find a newer model that automatically shuts off if it tips over. Additional safety recommendations to avoid appliance fires include:
  • Never plug in more than one heat-producing appliance in the same outlet
  • Keep hot appliances at least 3 feet from flammable materials
Seasonal fire safety
If you have a fireplace, have it checked and cleaned by a professional before using it each year. Over time, layers of buildup and debris “stick to the walls of a chimney kind of like cholesterol sticks to our arteries,” one fire captain said.

Chimney fires can cause significant damage, but they sometimes aren’t immediately apparent. “You might be watching TV, and your neighbor comes over and tells you that your roof is on fire,” the captain explained. Once you know your chimney is safe, use a metal or glass screen to prevent escaping embers from the fireplace.

Seasonal events involving fireworks and decorative lighting cause fire hazards around your home. To minimize these dangers, follow these tips:

  • Always set off fireworks away from trees or buildings. Keep a backup supply of water or a fire extinguisher handy. If your area has experienced recent drought, skip setting off fireworks altogether.
  • When decorating around the holidays, don’t plug more than three strings of lights into each other.
  • If you have a real Christmas tree, water it every day to prevent its needles from getting too dry.
  • Don’t place menorahs, kinaras or other candles near flammable surfaces.
About half of house fires that start with space heaters occur between December and February.

How to prepare for house fires

It only takes a few minutes for a fire to spread through your home. That’s why it’s essential to have working smoke detectors, practice a fire escape plan and invest in fire safety equipment.

1. Install smoke alarms/carbon monoxide detectors and test them regularly 

Make sure you have working smoke alarms on each floor of your house, inside bedrooms and in hallways outside sleeping areas. For new homes, the National Fire Alarm Code recommends hard-wired smoke alarms with a battery backup. Alarms should be interconnected so that if one sounds, they all sound.

Don’t ever disable your alarms — instead, use the “hush” button. Cleaning cobwebs and dust around sensors every few weeks helps prevent nuisance alarms.

Test your smoke alarms monthly and change the batteries if they aren’t working. A fire captain in Oklahoma suggested putting fresh batteries in your smoke alarms each year at daylight saving time. We also recommend upgrading your smoke alarm every 10 years.

Replace your smoke alarm
every 10 years

Most of us know smoke detectors are essential, but carbon monoxide detectors are just as crucial for your safety. A carbon monoxide detector alerts you to leaked fuels from stoves, water heaters, fireplaces, furnaces and more. You should replace your carbon monoxide detector every five to seven years.

2. Have a fire escape plan

It’s essential to create a plan with your family before a crisis. A good fire escape plan establishes how you and your loved ones should safely exit your home during a fire.

  • Choose alternative exits. Establish at least two ways to escape from each room in case one exit is blocked. If you live with an older relative or have children, be sure they can open windows on their own.
  • Use the back of your hand. The best way to check if there’s a fire on the other side of a closed door is to press the back of your hand against the door’s surface.
  • Get low and stay low. Since smoke rises, it’s vital to get low to avoid smoke inhalation. Practice how to move close to the ground during your family fire drills.
  • Find a meeting place. Choose a place to meet once you are outside. Be sure to pick a spot that’s a safe distance from your house — for example, a swingset, mailbox, neighbor's house or nearby stop sign. It’s also essential to teach children to never go back inside a burning building.

We recommend practicing your fire escape plan at least twice a year. Families with young children should practice more often. For more information, read about how to help your family plan and practice a fire escape route.

3. Invest in fire safety equipment

Nearly half of the firefighters we surveyed suggested the best way to control the damage caused by house fires is purchasing fire safety equipment. You already know that smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are a must, so we suggest the following additional items:

  • Fire extinguisher: Keep a small fire extinguisher in your kitchen. If needed, use the PASS technique (pull, aim, squeeze, sweep). However, you should also beware of counterfeit fire extinguisher scams.
  • Fire sprinklers: Fire sprinkler systems automatically activate if they detect heat.
  • Fireproof safe: Use fireproof safes to store flammable or explosive materials, including firearms. They can also protect documents (passports, marriage license, etc.) from fire.
  • Escape ladder: An escape ladder might be necessary to safely exit rooms that aren’t on the ground floor. If you have a fire escape ladder, be sure to practice using it as part of a fire escape plan.
  • Informative signage: Install signs that provide crucial information for emergency responders — for example, a plaque that tells firefighters how many pets you have or which windows open into children’s rooms.

House fire safety FAQ

What do local fire departments do?
In addition to putting out fires, local fire departments in many communities are the first responders for all kinds of emergencies and disasters, including hazardous material removal. Your local fire department might also offer some of the following practical and educational services:
  • Fire alarm installation programs: In some areas, local firefighters can install your fire alarm. Some programs exist specifically to prioritize seniors or those who live in impoverished communities.
  • Voluntary home fire safety checklists: Fire departments sometimes perform on-site evaluations or provide digital fire safety checklists, like in Houston.
  • Car seat checks: Your local fire department might provide free car seat installation and car seat checks for parents.
  • Public access to automated external defibrillators: Many fire departments train their responders to use a defibrillator, like in Los Angeles.
  • Local fire records and inspection records: Your local fire department can often help you find city or county records relating to inspections and fire investigations.
  • Sexy calendars: Often used to raise money for charity, many fire departments sell annual calendars starring their most attractive team members, like in New York City.
  • Fire extinguisher disposal and recharging: Your local fire department can assist you with recharging or disposing of fire extinguishers meant for home use.
  • Public department tours and safety presentations: Local fire departments often handle scheduled tours and safety presentations for classrooms, clubs and more.
How hot is a house fire?
A house fire can reach between 1,000 degrees and 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
How long does it take for a house to burn down?
It can take less than a minute for a small flame to grow into a major fire. Residents generally have about two minutes to escape before the smoke becomes too dangerous to breathe. Within four to five minutes, house fires spread so rapidly that they can be seen from the street.

Fires burn faster than they used to because of modern plastics and synthetic materials, according to Underwriters Laboratories. Forty years ago, your house might burn down in the amount of time it takes to watch an episode of “The Office.” These days, a house can burn down in the time it takes to watch Keith Urban’s “For You” music video — about four and a half minutes.

What are the five different classes of fire?
  • Class A: Class A fires involve solid combustible materials, such as wood, cloth, paper or plastic. Class A fires can be put out with water or a foam fire extinguisher.
  • Class B: Class B fires involve alcohol, gasoline or other flammable liquids. Class B fires can’t be put out with water. Foam, powder and carbon dioxide extinguishers can be used to put out Class B fires.
  • Class C: Class C fires involve electricity. Class C fires should be put out with a dry powder or carbon dioxide extinguisher.
  • Class D: Class D fires are rare in most homes because they involve alkali metals that are usually only found in laboratories. Class D fires should only be put out with a dry powder fire extinguisher.
  • Class K: Class K fires involve cooking oils. Similar to Class B fires, Class K fires should be put out with a wet chemical extinguisher (not water).

Bottom line: Why is fire prevention important?

Fire prevention is about taking precautions to avoid scenarios that commonly lead to house fires. Professional firefighters agree that one of the best ways to prevent a house fire is to prepare for one. If you haven’t already, make sure you have working smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. Fires generate smoke and other poisonous gases, especially when insulation, fabrics and petroleum-based products burn. The most important thing is to get out of the house and not return until the fire is safely extinguished.

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Profile picture of Kathryn Parkman
by Kathryn Parkman ConsumerAffairs Research Team

As a member of the ConsumerAffairs Research Team, Kathryn Parkman believes everyone deserves easy access to accurate and comprehensive information on products and businesses before they make a purchase, which is why she spends hours researching companies and industries for ConsumerAffairs. She believes conscious consumption is everyone's responsibility and that all content deserves integrity.