Study after study shows that this room is where fire accidents are just waiting to happen.

The NFPA reported a total of 3,430 fatalities in the United States in 2007 resulting from fire. Of those, a whopping 2,895 (that’s 84%) occurred in residential occupancies. When we begin to look at the residential fire problem, we must start with the fact that more fires originate in the kitchen than any other room in the house or apartment. And the leading cause of kitchen fires comes in the friendly disguise of stoves and other cooking appliances.

In 2005, the Ohio State Fire Marshal’s Office noted that cooking fires accounted for 25% of the year’s 126,347 residential fires. The United States Fire Administration states that 32% of all home fires begin in the kitchen area. Statistics from the NFPA cite that cooking equipment, at 28%, is the leading cause of residential fires; heating equipment landed in second place with 14%. When you factor in the NFPA estimate that cooking fires account for more than half of all unreported residential fires, this equates to at least one cooking fire incident per year per eight American households.

The most significant statistic agreed upon by every interested agency is that the No. 1 major cause of all cooking fires is its unattended operation. And the cause ofthatvery dangerous oversight is distraction by a variety of day-to-day activities. These include household chores, a phone call, tending to a child, a television program, or some similar event that absorbs the attention of the person preparing food to such an extent that he or she may even forget that something is burning or boiling on the range.

The diagnosis is that multitasking while cooking is human error. A recent study documented that the greatest number of domestic arguments in the average American home take place in the kitchen. On the flip side of that, fire officials constantly remind the public that the greatest threat to life safety occurs when no one is in the kitchen at all. People today lead busy lives. Data has shown that in 68% of cooking fires, the individual operating the cooking appliance is somewhere in the residence other than the kitchen.

An Accident Waiting to Happen

The ongoing and troubling reality of careless, poorly supervised, and unattended cooking fires in apartments and homes is so prodigious and widespread that it comes as no surprise that this problem has been thoroughly researched. The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, for example, has conducted extensive studies, which reveal that the person responsible for 50% of home kitchen fires was between the ages of 30 and 49. Their findings further show that in the great majority of instances, what first ignited was either grease or oil, food left on the stovetop, or combustible materials near the cooking appliance itself. More facts have come to light in the past several years:
  • People inside the residence evacuated the premises without attempting to quell the blaze in 64% of kitchen fires.   

  • Approximately 1/2 of the people who attempted to extinguish the fire did so incorrectly, further compounding the danger.

  • The actual time of cooking fires peaks at 6:00 p.m. A secondary peak occurs at noon.

  • The average dollar amount of damages resulting from all cooking fires is $1,573 per incident.

  • On Thanksgiving, the number of residential fire occurrences increase by 12% from the typical daily average, with unattended cooking being the causal factor at a rate of almost double the daily average.

  • The range-top is involved in 4 out of 5 cooking fires.

  • 25% of cooking fires are caused by men or women between the ages of 19 and 30.

  • 41% of people who perish in home cooking fires were asleep at the time of the fire.

  • Working smoke detectors save lives and also double a person’s chances of escaping a nighttime fire. In 2002, a smoke alarm was present and alerted occupants in 45% of all cooking fires.

  • By property type, 54% of home cooking fires occur in one- and two-family dwellings, 46% occur in multifamily or other residential occupancies.

The last item is noteworthy and consequential because an unconfined fire in an apartment or townhouse will directly impact other residents of the structure. It should be noted that in 2005 kitchen fires originating in areas besides the stove resulted in 30 civilian deaths. Most often, these were traced to electrical malfunctions in refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, or the microwave oven.

Microwaves are generally safe. They cause water molecules in the food to vibrate at high speeds - creating heat to cook the food. The reason that glass or ceramic plates don’t heat up in a microwave oven is because they contain no water molecules. However, if a twist-tie or other piece of metal is accidentally placed inside the oven, arcing may occur which poses a very real threat.

Keep an Eye on the Stove

A typical calamity occurred in October 2007 in a Burlington, VT, (8-unit) apartment building. A resident was arranging her table settings in a separate room while heating cooking oil in a saucepan. Eventually the oil ignited and when the fire intensified this person removed the flaming pot from the stove, put it in the sink and ran water. This ill-advised action (mixing water with burning oil) resulted in a sharp explosion that scattered flames onto the walls and cabinets. Fortunately for the woman who inadvertently spread the fire, her apartment was equipped with a residential fire sprinkler system, and a single sprinkler activated - extinguishing the blaze prior to the arrival of the fire department. Others are less fortunate. A 2001 kitchen fire in South Carolina killed a 25-year old woman and her two young children. The woman had fallen asleep with the stove on and, as is typical in kitchen fires, the flames from the stove first ignited the cabinet immediately above, quickly spreading fire throughout the single-family home that was devoid of any fire sprinklers or smoke alarms.

In the Event of a Fire

In case of an oven fire, always close the oven door and turn it off. If an appliance is electrical, unplug it if reasonably possible. If something is on fire inside a microwave, leave the door closed until the flames are out. If the fire is on the stovetop, smother the flames with a larger pan or a lid after protecting your hands with an oven mitt or a dish towel (don’t wet a wrapped towel, scalding may result if the moisture in the towel gets too hot). Better yet, use a throw rug to smother the fire if one is lying nearby.

If your clothes catch fire, stop, drop, and roll. Do not throw flour on a grease fire, use the fire extinguisher. Never move, carry, or even touch a flaming pot. Never ever attempt to transport a burning deep-fat fryer. If the fire is not immediately brought under control, evacuate the premises and call 9-1-1. 

Be Alert (the World Needs More Lerts)

Awareness is the key to prevention. Basic fire prevention tips for the home kitchen include:

  • Check cooking devices for any cracks or fraying on cords and plugs.

  • Unplug any small cooking appliance when not in use.

  • Since it’s easy to turn on the wrong burner, remove any items from the stove when not in use, especially pans of cooking fat, gravy, or oils.

  • Keep pot handles turned towards the back of the stove.

  • Keep the stove and oven clean of grease and food particle build-up.

  • With children in the home use the back burners, particularly when boiling water. Keep the pets out of the kitchen and forcefully establish a (3-foot) safety zone around the stove for the children.

  • Keep all oven mitts, wood utensils, grocery bags, dish towels, curtains, papers, and all other combustibles far away from cooking appliances.

  • Stay in the kitchen when cooking food.

  • Double-check that all dials on ovens are turned off when the cooking is finished.

  • NEVER cook while intoxicated.