Cold weather leads to a spike in house fires. Here's how you can keep your home safe
As temperatures drop the number of house fires increase. Cooking fires are the leading cause. One day of the year has 3 to 4 times more fires than any other day: Thanksgiving.
As temperatures tumble, fire departments get to work. House fires are more likely in the cooler months, and the most likely day of the year for a house fire is Thanksgiving.
In 2019, fire departments across the U.S. responded to over 1,400 cooking fires alone on Thanksgiving, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). That is 288% of the number of cooking fires reported over the daily average.
On average, FEMA reports, that roughly 3 people die in fires on Thanksgiving Day every year, and 15 more are injured. Cooking fires start over 73% of those blazes.
"The leading cause of cooking fires is unattended cooking. We are all super busy. It's easy to get distracted. And that's a lot of times when people run into problems because they're not monitoring the situation that occurs while they're cooking on the stove or in the oven," Susan McKelvey, Spokesperson for the non-profit NFPA.
"It sounds so simple, but it's so hard to do, you've really got to keep a close eye on what you're cooking, not leave the kitchen, particularly for things that are flying on the stove top or simmering, boiling," she continued.
Cooking fires are the leading cause of home fires year-round, over 50%. A report by FEMA showed that 165 people died and 3,325 were injured by cooking fires between 2017 and 2019. That makes meal mishaps the leading cause of civilian fire injuries and the second leading cause of civilian fire deaths.
Property loss from the 187,500 cooking fires in the report tallied up to $444 million.
Prevent cooking fires
"You want to make sure that the area is clear of things that can burn," said McKelvey. "So towels, oven, packaging for food, make sure it's well away from the cooking area."
Give everyone a job, like watching the kids or getting drinks, so one person can focus on cooking. And NFPA recommends buying fried turkey instead of DIY. They set up a simulation to show how quickly outdoor cooking on a deck and under a roof can go wrong.
The chill is another reason house fires increase over the winter. FEMA suggests that a rise in heating fires and the cold drive people inside for activities.
The numbers started to creep up in October and November before peaking in January with over 10% of all residential fires. House fires hit their low in August and September.
Heating is the second leading cause of home fires and fire injuries and the top fire cause during the cooler months. Heating equipment is the third leading cause of home fire deaths. That means heating equipment starts 1 out of every 6 home fires and is responsible for 1 out of every 5 home fire deaths.
Eighty percent of home heating fire deaths are space heaters. Half of all home heating fires happen in December, January and February.
"You want to make sure that anything that can burn is at least three feet away," said McKelvey. "So particularly for portable space heaters, you want to make sure you're monitoring them really carefully. You're turning them off when you leave the room or go to sleep."
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The leading cause of heating fires is failure to clean the equipment, usually chimneys, according to NFPA. Fire departments respond to about 48,530 heating equipment fires annually, estimating $220 million of property damage.
Christmas, not so safe either
Christmas Day and Christmas Eve are the second and third days with the most house fires followed by New Year’s Day.
Fire Departments put out about 790 home fires a year, started by decorations and 160 started by Christmas trees, according to NFPA. Lights started 1 in 5 tree fires. Decoration fires (not on the tree) kill about a person a year and injure 26 more. Christmas trees cause an average of two deaths and 11 injuries a year, as well as $12 million in property damage.
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Candles light about 35-45% of decoration fires. Cooking lights 1 out of every 5 decoration fires.
Have an escape plan
The number of house fires per year has been dropping since 1980, but the number of fire deaths is not.
"While the number of home fires is declining, the home fire death rate has stagnated in recent years," said McKelvey. "So what we're seeing is that people, when they do have fires, they're struggling to get out."
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Working smoke alarms can help keep your family alive.
"In a typical home fire, you may have as little as 2 minutes to get out safely from the time the alarm sounds," continued McKelvey. "You've got to have a plan in place that everybody has practiced so that in the event of a fire is the time to get out quickly and safely."
And she said, call the fire department when you are safe, don’t spend the time trying to put out a dangerous fire yourself. Fire crews are trained and have the gear to enter a burning building. Different fires may require different extinguishers.