If a fire started in your home would you know what to do?
In the first few five days of 2016, more than 50 homes across New South Wales caught fire. In the previous month, December of 2015, there were about 300 house fires across NSW and several resulting deaths.
Each year sees thousands of house fires and a number of subsequent deaths, most of which could have been prevented.
Get covered for house fires with a home insurance policy
How to put out kitchen fires
Your best bet is generally to try smothering the flames.
- How to fight microwave fires - Do not open the door. Instead, turn off the microwave immediately, and unplug it if it’s safe to do so. The fire should smother itself.
- How to fight oven fires - The same principle applies as microwave fires. The safest thing to do is turn everything off and let the fire smother itself. If you try to save your food, or your oven, you simply risk spreading the fire.
- How to fight stovetop fires - Turn the stove off if possible, and then smother the flames by dropping a pan lid over them. If it’s too big for that, use your fire blanket or fire extinguisher.
You should never:
- Never use water on grease or oil fires. This will most likely just cause the burning oil to splatter everywhere, including on you.
- Never swat at fires with a dishtowel, oven mitt or other cloth - It might seem instinctive, but it’s a terrible idea. At best you’re just fanning the flames. At worst you’re going to ignite the cloth and then have two fires on your hands.
- Never try smothering a fire with flour or other flammables - Ingredients like sugar might catch fire themselves rather, and flour in particular might explode. Oven mitts, meanwhile, are often not fireproof. There’s no substitute for a fire blanket.
The most common causes of house fires
More bushfires might occur in hotter seasons, but it’s the colder winter months that bring more house fires as people stay indoors, and use heaters and other appliances.
According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1998
- Unattended heat sources. Unattended ovens, stoves or other cooking equipment is the most dangerous, especially when it involves cooking oils or fats, followed by heaters.
- Suspected arson. This includes all the recorded fires which were determined to be from suspicious sources.
- Short circuits and electrical failures. Air conditioners, refrigerators and other appliances also account for a lot of home fires.
- Falling asleep. This might be falling asleep with a lit cigarette or a candle. It also includes falling asleep while cooking, which happens surprisingly frequently, and often with the help of drugs or alcohol.
- Discarded materials. A range of discarded materials can start house fires, including cigarettes, inflammable materials like aerosol cans, or even light bulbs, eyeglasses and other objects that might end up starting a fire by refracting sunlight.
- Combustibles too close to heat sources. This can be everything from clothes accidentally catching on fire while cooking, to a magazine on top of a heater.
Who causes the most house fires, and who’s most at risk?
Small children are so likely to cause house fires that some organisations consider them a cause of fires in their own right. This might be cooking unattended, putting metal in a microwave, leaving combustibles near a heater, knocking over a candle or anything else.
Senior citizens are also at disproportionate risk, and a lack of mobility can also make it difficult to escape smoke inhalation and other hazards in time.
And naturally anyone who does a lot of home cooking, smokes indoors, has a lot of candles or electric appliances, uses their heater more or otherwise has more risk factors, is also more likely to start a house fire than someone who has fewer.
As such, a fire can strike any household, and similar precautions are a good idea in all cases.
What to do if there’s a fire
- Try to put it out
- If you can’t put it out, get everyone out of the house
- Call the fire department as soon as you can
The best way to put out a fire depends on what kind of situation it is, but in all cases most fires can be prevented before they begin.
How to prevent and fight fires in the kitchen
A combination of good habits and safety equipment can greatly reduce the odds of an accident.
- Don't leave children unattended. Never leave small children unattended in the kitchen while cooking, and get into the habit of turning the handles of pots and pans on a stovetop inwards so they can’t be reached by curious hands.
- Turn things off. Always make sure you turn off the oven, grill, hotplate or any other cooking appliance. If you’re not sure you did, it’s probably worth double checking.
- Don’t leave the room. Try not to leave the kitchen unattended while cooking. And if you do, check back frequently. Some types of cooking should never be left unattended under any circumstances, even briefly. If you’re cooking with oil on a stovetop, using a fat fryer or anything else which might spit or spill hot oil or other fuel, it should be turned off if you have to step out of the room.
- Clear the cooking space. Don’t leave paper towels, oven mitts, tea towels or any other flammable materials near a heat source.
- Have fire fighting gear. Have a fire extinguisher and a fire blanket somewhere in the same room, and know how to use them. Make sure everyone else who uses the kitchen also knows how to use them.
- Don’t microwave metal. Never microwave metal of any kind. This includes aluminium foil, cutlery, lids, twist ties with metal fasteners and anything else that has any metal parts whatsoever. Ideally you should only microwave items that have been marked as microwave safe.
- Clean your equipment. Crusted on grease or other cooking crud in the oven might eventually reach a tipping point where it gets close enough to the heating elements to catch fire. It’s generally a good idea to make sure all your appliances are clean and in good working order.
- Know how to fight each kind of fire. Different situations call for different methods.
Do I need to have a smoke alarm in the kitchen?
It may statistically be more dangerous to have a smoke alarm in the kitchen than elsewhere, even though it can detect fires faster. This is because people keep disabling it when they cook, in order to prevent false alarms, and don’t get alerted to a real emergency.
Many homes and lives have been lost over the years because of smoke alarms that were deliberately disabled before cooking. A smoke alarm in the kitchen might technically be safer, but you’re also statistically quite likely to turn it off when you need it most.
Generally a smoke alarm is most useful when there’s little or no chance of false alarms.
How to prevent electrical and other appliance fires
Although nowhere near as likely to catch fire as kitchens, lounge and bedroom areas are also more susceptible to fires than other the rest of the house, because there tend to be more electronics and appliances here, as well as fireplaces.
You should always use devices in line with the manufacturer’s instructions, and there are certain steps to take for specific items.
- Powerboards. Don’t overload power boards or other devices.
- Computers, phones and other devices. Avoid overheating computers, TVs and other electronics. Maintain good airflow around the devices and clean the dust as needed. It’s also a good idea to stay on top of the news around your products, as there have been several recalls in recent years, following overheating laptops and phones catching fire.
- Fireplaces and candles. If you have a fireplace, always use a firescreen with it to prevent burning logs or embers from ending up on the carpet. Don’t go to bed without fully extinguishing any fireplaces, candles and other open flames.
- Electric blankets. If you use an electric blanket, turn it on beforehand so it can warm up, and then turn it off once you’re in bed.
- Heaters. Try not to keep any items too close to heaters, and in particular make sure they’re not covered and that you don’t keep any blankets, bedding or clothes too close to them.
- Dryers. Clean the lint filter regularly.
- Hairdryers, hair straighteners, laptops and others. Don’t leave them on and unattended on a bed.
Periodically, you should:
- Check plugs - Plugs should be in good condition and firmly plugged in.
- Check cables - Check electrical cables and wires for fraying and degradation, and replace as needed.
- Check electrical sockets - And clean as needed to prevent dust from building up inside them.
- Check smoke alarms - Batteries should be replaced and alarms tested yearly
Home insurance policies typically require you to take reasonable precautions to avoid loss and damage.
For example, an insurer might deny a claim if it’s found that you deliberately turned off a smoke alarm prior to a house fire, or didn’t use a screen for your fireplace.
As you compare home and contents insurance policies, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the exclusions as well as the cover.