What could be more fascinating than fire? Humans have been drawn to it since we lived in caves. Fire is in every part of our lives, present in many of our daily activities, from cooking and heating our homes, to warming our souls. Fire out of control kills between three and four hundred children each year. In 2010 it was the third leading cause of accidental death in children. Preventing it is a good idea.
In order to prevent house fires, we need to know why they happen. Statistics time! In 2010, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, 36% of fires which caused injuries were started by cooking, and tended to occur in the evening. 15% of house fires that result in deaths were caused by smoking. After these two, fires are most commonly started by electrical appliances (especially dryers), heating units (especially portable heaters), open flames (matches, lighters, candles, and fireworks), and intentionally by people fascinated by fire. Fires not related to cooking most commonly start in the bedroom and occur during the night. Fires are particularly frequent around holidays, thanks to Halloween pumpkins, Thanksgiving candles, and dry Christmas trees.
There is a racial difference: in 2010, 29% of the children who died in fires were African Americans, who comprise only 15% of the U.S. population. There is also socioeconomic disparity: more deaths occur in poorer homes, likely due to substandard housing, crowded conditions, and children who are more frequently left alone. Also, boys are more likely to be injured or die in fires than girls.
Last, there is an age difference: although children as a whole are only half as likely to die in a fire as the general population, those under 4 are twice as likely to die as older children. They are unable to escape a fire on their own, and are more effected by the flame and the smoke.
So how do we prevent a house fire?
Be prepared for a kitchen fire: know to cover fire in a pan with it’s own lid to cut off the fire’s supply of air; never throw water on a grease fire; and keep a fire extinguisher readily available. Make sure the extinguisher is kitchen rated (it can stop a grease fire), and check the pressure gauge and look for any signs of corrosion annually. Turn it upside down and beat it with a rubber mallet at least annually, and replace it when it expires. Use the old one for practice. Most importantly, know to get out of the house if you are not able to quickly stop a small fire.
Install smoke detectors on every level of your house, next to the furnace, and near every bedroom door. Test them every month, and change the batteries every year (maybe when you turn the clocks back in the fall? You have that whole extra hour!). Then do not count on them to wake up the kids. Kids can sleep through anything.
Have fire drills with your kids, planning two exits from every room, what to do if it’s dark, and how to crawl on their hands and knees below any smoke. Teach them to touch any closed door with the back of their hand to see if it is hot. If it is, or if they see smoke, use that second exit you planned. Know where you will meet outside—the big tree, or the corner? Make it clear that the only thing to do in a fire is leave the house. No stopping for the cat, no checking on a sister. Firemen are superheroes.
Matches and lighters are, of course, adults only. Child resistant lighters have made a difference – don’t buy the few that are not child resistant! In 2010 the NFPA estimated that 56,000 fires were started by children playing with a heat source: 25,000 outdoors, 18,000 trash, 12,000 structure, and 900 vehicle fires. More boys than girls start fires. Younger children tend to start fires indoors, older children outdoors. 50% of these fires are started with lighters.
Clean the lint out of your dyer hose regularly (that will also make it work better). Never use a portable heater near anything flammable, especially curtains. Never leave a candle burning when you are not in the room. And watch those holiday decorations! If you light a pumpkin with a candle, put it at eye level, not on the ground. Better, use a different source of light. Keep fire away from drying holiday decor, and don’t even get me started on fireworks! Let the professionals handle them, please.
So, keep an eye on those lighters, never smoke in the house, go make sure that fire extinguisher has not solidified into a lump at the bottom of a corroded canister, and check those smoke detectors. Then surprise your kids with a fire drill.