Despite ample information on fire safety, home fires continue to be a huge problem in the United States. From 2011 to 2015, fire departments across the country responded to an average of 358,500 home structure fires, which resulted in $6.7 billion in damage. Though the rare house fire simply can’t be avoided (like those started by forest fires), most are caused by things that could easily be evaded: poorly placed candles, unattended pots, filthy grills.
In other words, there are steps you can—and indeed should—take to prevent a fire from afflicting your home. To that end, we spoke to firefighters and rounded up advice from safety professionals to ensure your home doesn’t go down in an inglorious blaze. Here’s what they had to say. And for more helpful household tricks, check out these 20 Genius House-Cleaning Tricks That Will Blow Your Mind.
Clean your dryer’s lint filter.
An estimated 15,500 fires are caused every year by clothes dryers in the United States, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. One way to ensure that you don’t become a part of that statistic is to always clean out your lint filter both before and after each drying cycle, as lint is highly flammable and accumulates easily. And for laundry tips that will save your clothes, check out the 20 Items You Should Never Put in the Washing Machine.
Pile up dead leaves far away from the house.
One home hazard that the firefighters of the Orange County Fire Authority warn about: piles of dead leaves. Because dead leaves can easily ignite, the safety experts advise to keep them far away from the home to prevent them from causing a house fire.
Know how to properly put out a small fire.
If there is ever a fire in your house that has gotten out of control, the only thing you should do is call 9-1-1 and evacuate as soon as possible. However, if the fire is small and manageable—like a small stove fire—then there are ways to put it out before it becomes a real emergency.
“The best way to put out a fire on the stove is to snuff out the oxygen,” explains Matt Russell, a driver and engineer for the Tampa Fire Department. “You can put the lid of the pan over the top of it or cover the fire with a very wet rag.” And though firefighters often use water to extinguish fires, one thing that Russell says you should never do is douse your fire with water, as using too little can actually cause the fire to spread.
Be careful with the car.
Carbon monoxide is a “byproduct of any incomplete combustion,” says Russell, which means that any appliance in your house can produce it. And though it’s not commonly known, leaving your car running can also create the poisonous gas, which is why health officials so often reiterate not to keep the car on when the garage is closed.
“Carbon monoxide is a small molecule and it can pass through items like dry wall and all through the cracks of the house,” Russell explains. And because the gas moves so easily, it’s not just your car that poses a threat, but the cars of those nearby as well. “With all the condo living we have now, it doesn’t even have to be your car. Your neighbor could leave their car running and it could affect your property.”
Always clean your outdoor grill.
Here’s another home safety tip, courtesy of the Chicago Fire Department: Make sure to thoroughly clean your outdoor grill both before and after using it. Grease builds up every time you light up the grill, and if left on there it can cause either flare-ups or full-on fires. And if you really want to make sure you’re following protocol, This Is the Healthiest Way to Grill.
Use extension cords properly.
Extension cords make it possible to have various electronics plugged in at once—but if used improperly, these accessories can become a serious fire hazard. As John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at safety management company UL, explained to ProtectAmerica: “Extension cords are for temporary use, but a lot of people plug them in various places and they stay there. We know you might have to run a cord under your couch to connect to a lamp on an end table, [but] it’s when the cord gets covered by a carpet or a rug that the problems begin.”
As a general home safety tip, Drengenberg says to never keep an extension cord under a rug or through a doorway, and to only plug big appliances like a microwave or toaster straight into the wall. And for more ways to stay unharmed, avoid these 17 Things You’re Doing in the Kitchen That Are Unsafe.
Watch the kids closely.
If you have little ones running around the house, it’s important to keep an eye on them at all times. Not only can they potentially start a fire by accidentally turning on the oven or knocking over a burning candle, but if a fire is to start, it’s important to know where they are so that you can get them to safety as soon as possible.
Learn how to use a fire extinguisher.
Having a fire extinguisher in the house is only useful if you know how to properly use it, explains Zack Zarrilli, a firefighter and the founder of CPR instruction company SureFire CPR. And if you don’t already know how to use one, the fire safety experts says that the best way to operate a fire extinguisher is with the PASS method, which consists of pulling the pin on the extinguisher; aiming the nozzle at the base of the fire; squeezing the handle to release the extinguishing agent; and sweeping the nozzle side to side at the base of the fire until it goes out.
Keep matches out of children’s reach.
Though it’s indeed common sense and common knowledge, this home safety tip warrants repeating. If there are children in the house, make sure that all of your matches and lighters are stored in high cabinets far away from their little, curious hands.
Use candles responsibly.
According to Russell, one of the more common causes of fires in the home setting is candles that have either been left unattended or that have been left too close to a drape or curtain. In order to ensure that your candles don’t wreak havoc, the firefighter recommends only keeping them lit when you’re in the room and never leaving them near something flammable.
Get a carbon monoxide detector.
Most people know that they should have smoke detectors throughout the house, but few people realize that they should have carbon monoxide detectors as well. “Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless and is commonly referred to as the silent killer,” explains Jared Wolff, a longtime volunteer firefighter and EMT. And for more things to watch out for, read up on the 20 Surprising Habits That Increase Your Cancer Risk.
Have a “go-bag” ready.
According to Zarrilli, one of the simplest ways to prep for an emergency fire situation is to “prepare a ‘go-bag.'” In your bag (which should be lightweight enough that it doesn’t slow you down as you escape), the firefighter says that you should have “clothing, toiletries, emergency supplies, and various everyday essentials.”
Don’t leave cooking food unattended.
Based on data compiled about house fires from 2009 to 2013, Safewise found that approximately half of all fires in the home begin in the kitchen. In order to avoid starting a fire in this all-too-common location, the Chicago Fire Department recommends never leaving cooking food unattended for long periods of time and, if you have to leave the kitchen for a second to answer the door or grab something from another room, to turn down the heat on the stove.
Formulate an escape plan in advance.
One of the easiest and best ways to prep for a potential fire is to work with your family to plan an escape route. “It’s really important to talk with your household members about escape plans,” former firefighter Tom Mueller explained to Erie Insurance. “This is important even if you have little kids—talking about the plan and play-acting it could be a lifesaver.” And for more safety tips, check out the Safest Way to Clean Your Oven.
Close the door.
If you find yourself caught in a house fire, Mueller explained that it’s important to “close the door behind you” in order to keep the fire contained. And as you make your escape, stay as low to the ground as possible so as to avoid the worst parts of the smoke and heat.
Enjoy Christmas responsibly.
You shouldn’t prolong getting your Christmas tree out of the living room once the holiday is over. Though pretty, the tree is just a house fire just waiting to happen, given that “within five seconds, it’s in inferno,” says Russell. “It’s amazing how fast a dry Christmas tree goes up.”
And Thanksgiving, too.
If your turkey cooking method involves a turkey fryer, then Russell recommends pre-measuring the oil so that “the turkey can fit without bubbling that oil over.” And as a precaution, it’s also best to lower the turkey into the pot when the flame isn’t on, just in case some oil does spill over. And if you’re looking to make the best bird of your life this year, here’s The One Way to Cook a Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey.
Label your house clearly.
Make it as easy as possible for firefighters to find your house. Your house number, and even your last name, if possible, should be clearly legible so that in the case of an emergency, rescue workers are able to identify which house is yours. Though you might think that it would be obvious which house is on fire, the Austin Fire Department notes on their website that “[street numbers] can be critical in the event of a fire, sudden illness, or other emergency.”
Properly dispose of cigarette butts.
According to the National Park Service, fires caused by cigarettes kill nearly 1,000 people on an annual basis. To prevent these fires, you should always put your cigarettes out in ashtrays or ensure that they are no longer lit by soaking them in water before throwing them in the trash can.
And don’t smoke in bed.
If you are a cigarette smoker, you should never smoke in bed or on the couch. The National Park Service notes that “most home fires caused by smoking materials start inside the home,” due to cigarettes placed near flammable materials (like fabric), so your safest bet is to take your cigarette break outside.
Test your smoke detectors.
Most, if not all, fire departments recommend testing the smoke detectors throughout your house at least once a month to make sure they work. And to err on the side of caution, alarms should be replaced entirely every 10 years.
Don’t use your oven for storage.
Carrie Bradshaw might use her oven to store off-season sweaters, but that doesn’t mean you should follow suit. Should you forget that there are flammable things in your oven, you might accidentally turn it on and start a fire—which is why the Burbank Fire Department explicitly warns not to use the oven as a storage space.
When in doubt, call 911.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, house fires killed 2,570 people and injured another 13,210 between 2007 to 2011. If you ever find yourself fighting a fire that you feel is getting out of control, don’t hesitate to call 911 and let the professionals take it from there. And for more ways to keep your home Fort Knox-level safe, learn the 20 Household Products That Could Be Dangerous.
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