The holidays are here, and with them come home-cooked meals shared in the company of friends and family. Many families celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas without incident—save perhaps for the occasional awkward discussion that inevitably arises around the dinner table.
But unfortunately, the holidays don’t go smoothly for everyone. Thanksgiving is the single worst day of the year for cooking-related house fires, followed closely by Christmas Day, Christmas Eve, and the day before Thanksgiving.
Distracted and unattended cooking is a primary contributor to most Thanksgiving house fires.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, unattended cooking is one of leading causes of home cooking fires, injuries, and deaths in the United States.
One of the most common distractions during the holidays are the guests themselves. But things like loud music or a football game on TV can be equally dangerous. Cooking fires can erupt in the short time you step out of the kitchen to watch an instant replay or get drawn into conversation with family members.
Large meals are also a potential recipe for distraction and disaster, as it can be easy to lose track of how long something has been in the oven or deep fryer.
How you can minimize the potential for cooking fires throughout the year.
While Thanksgiving is the holiday with the most cooking fires statistically, such fires can happen any time of the year. Here are common risk factors for kitchen fires, and how you can control them.
- Minimize distractions: if you have music playing, try to keep the volume low. If there is a sports game on TV, don’t let it pull you away from the kitchen. If possible, have guests gather somewhere that isn’t too close to the kitchen, as loud conversation can be a distraction.
- Only cooks should be in the kitchen: Ideally, anyone who isn’t involved should be far away from ovens, stoves, and anything that could be a potential fire hazard. All it takes is a moment of distraction for an accident to happen.
- Keep children out of the kitchen: Young children are potential distractions and hazards wrapped up in one convenient package. No child should be playing around in the kitchen if the oven or stovetop is in use. Not only can they potentially hurt themselves on heated surfaces, but it’s also easy for distracted adults to trip over them.
- Wear clothes for cooking: If you’re hosting family and friends, it might be tempting to handle the cooking while dressed for the celebration, but it’s just not worth the risk. Roll up your sleeves, and avoid clothing that could drift close to open flames or hot surfaces and potentially catch fire.
- Keep flammable objects away from open flames and heated surfaces: Things like paper towels, rags, oven mitts, wooden utensils, and food wrappers are all potential fuel for a fire. Keep your kitchen organized and safe by keeping such things away from where the cooking is happening.
- Set timers: One of the most common causes of both ruining a recipe and starting a cooking fire is not keeping track of how long something has been cooking. Setting a timer is an easy way to avoid this, and setting multiple timers is even better if you’re preparing many different items at once. If you happen to have a smartphone, you can set multiple timers on the device, then take it with you if you must leave the kitchen momentarily.
- Never cook while under the influence: If it’s not safe to operate heavy machinery or motor vehicles while drunk, it’s unsafe to cook while drunk. You’ll have plenty of time to relax after the meal is ready to eat. If you need to take a medication that could potentially make you drowsy, be sure that there is someone who can take over for you.
Using a deep fryer in the home or backyard to cook a turkey or other items is also a major contributor to home fires.
The National Fire Protection Agency strongly discourages the use of deep fryers, including gas-powered outdoor deep fryers. While it’s hard to beat the amazing flavor that’s possible with deep frying a turkey, this is one of the greatest fire hazards you can introduce to any home.
Some of the most common safety factors in deep frying include failing to properly thaw the turkey out, overfilling the deep fryer with oil, and overheating the oil. Any one of these factors, or especially combining several of them, can lead to a sudden flash fire. One of the most common fryer-related incidents that occurs every year is that an unthawed turkey is dropped into a fryer, causing an explosive reaction that sends oil spilling out of the fryer and onto the heating element and surrounding area. Even when these accidents happen outdoors, there is a high likelihood of serious burn injuries, and the potential for fire to spread rapidly.
If you must use a deep fryer, follow absolutely every precaution you can, and have a Class B fire extinguisher on hand. If a fire does break out, follow these tips:
- Immediately shut off the fryer or heat source when an accident occurs.
- Cover the fryer with a metal lid as soon as possible. This will smother the fire in the fryer itself. Do not use a glass lid, as the extreme heat will shatter it.
- Never use water to douse a grease/oil fire around a fryer. Water vaporizes on contact with the burning oil, causing a steam explosion which can send superheated grease in every direction, potentially spreading the fire. You can purchase special fire-resistant blankets that can be thrown over a grease fire, and they should be left over the fire until the grease has noticeably cooled.
- Do not try to move the fryer. Panic might tell you to move the fryer out of the house right away, but you might end up splashing burning oil on your surroundings and yourself.
- Baking soda can quickly smother a small grease fire if poured over it in large amounts. Have baking soda on hand if you decide to deep fry anything, and don’t mix it up with other products, like flour. But bear in mind that baking soda is only useful for smothering smaller fires.
- If you need to use a fire extinguisher, use it at a distance so the chemicals can smother the flames in place. When an extinguisher is fired too close to a grease fire, the grease around the fryer can be pushed around. You could potentially push the burning grease behind the stove or countertop and cause even more damage to your kitchen. Also, be sure that you only use a Class B fire extinguisher, as these are specially designed for use on oil and grease fires.
Cooking is not the only house fire hazard you may face during the holidays.
Cooking fires represent over half of all residential fires throughout the year. But homeowners face other hazards that can be heightened during the holidays.
In 2017, heating-related house fires represented the second greatest threat to homeowners. These fires are usually the result of an HVAC system malfunctioning, malfunctioning or improper use of portable heaters, and fireplace fires. Portable space heaters, which are popular in homes and offices during winter months, are particularly dangerous as they can quickly become fire hazards in the case of a power, or simply by being knocked over.
The third leading cause of house fires year-round are those categorized as resulting from “carelessness.” This can be a candle left burning in by itself and subsequently falling over, or children playing or interfering with flammable items or equipment. Sadly, carelessness-related fires are the leading fire-related cause of injury and death for young children.
Electrical fires are rare compared to the most common causes, but still happen thousands of times every year.
The danger of electrical fires increases during the holidays, as the electrical systems of homes are overtaxed by the excessive use of extension cords and outlet splitters to power Christmas lights and other electronics.
Some electrical fires are caused when surge protectors and power strips are “daisy-chained” together, a practice that is strongly discouraged by safety experts. Power strips do not offer the same protection that surge protectors do, and can spark fires easily during a power surge. Even surge protectors should not be chained together. Extension cords are also a potential electrical fire hazard. If the cord is worn, frayed, or otherwise damaged, it should be replaced right away. Do not attempt to use old cords.
Lastly, avoid the use of cheap extension cords and power strips purchased from dollar stores, bargain bins, and flea markets. These items are often flimsy and lack safety features common in most electrical products. In rare instances, these dollar store specials may not have been intended for use in the United States, or be old stock manufactured years or even decades ago, and thus not comply with modern American safety codes.
The holidays are meant to be a time spent with family and close friends in warmth and safety. So long as you practice some basic common sense, you should be able to enjoy the holidays without putting your loved ones and yourself in danger of a house fire. The team at Penney & Associates hope that you spend the last few weeks of the year in good company, and we wish you the happiest of holidays!