Protect your home from fires

Prevent the common causes of house fires and find out how to recover.

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The most common causes of house fires

Homeowners insurance can help you rebuild your home after a fire, but knowing how to prevent one can reduce your likelihood of ever filing a claim.

Fires are most commonly caused by:

  • Unattended heat sources. Unattended ovens, stoves or other cooking equipment are dangerous, especially when cooking oils or fats.
  • Short circuits and electrical failures. Consider having your home inspected if no one’s taken a look at your electrical wiring lately. 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 often with the help of drugs or alcohol.
  • Discarded materials. A range of discarded materials can start house fires, including cigarettes, aerosol cans and light bulbs, eyeglasses and other objects that could start a fire by refracting sunlight.
  • Combustibles too close to heat sources. This can include clothes accidentally catching on fire while cooking, leaving a magazine on top of a heater or keeping a stack of mail too close to the stove.
  • Arson. This can include arson from malicious third parties or from someone who lives in the home.

How to prevent kitchen fires

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, stove, toaster over 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. 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, even briefly.
  • Clear the cooking space. Don’t leave paper towels, oven mitts, tea towels or any other flammable materials near a heat source.
  • Have fire 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 aluminum foil, cutlery, lids, twist ties with metal fasteners and anything else that has any metal parts. 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.
  • Check your smoke alarms. Check that all smoke alarms in your home are working. If you have an older home, it’s also a good idea to check smoke alarm placement recommendations to make sure you have enough alarms in the right areas.

How to prevent fires in other areas of the home

While kitchens carry the highest fire risk, other areas in your home can be dangerous, too. You should always use devices in line with the manufacturer’s instructions, and there are certain steps to take for specific items.

  • 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 for laptops and phones that overheat.
  • Electronics. To prevent electrical fires, make sure plugs are in good condition, firmly plugged in and not frayed. Make sure sockets are clean to prevent dust from building up inside them.
  • Fireplaces and candles. If you have a fireplace, always use a fire screen 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 and hot appliances. Don’t leave them on and unattended on a bed.
  • Smoke alarms. Batteries should be replaced and alarms tested yearly

Will homeowners insurance cover fire damage?

Yes, homeowners insurance usually covers fire damage but it’s a good idea to check the fine print in your policy to find out how you’re covered.

Most policies require you to take reasonable precautions to avoid loss and damage. For example, an insurer might deny a claim if you deliberately turned off a smoke alarm prior to a house fire.

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Who causes the most house fires, and who’s most at risk?

Small children are so likely to cause house fires that some organizations consider them a cause of fires in their own right. Supervise children when cooking, including in the microwave and near any candles or open flames. It’s also a food idea to teach children about fire safety and not leaving clothes, toys or anything else near heat sources.

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 heaters or otherwise has more risk factors is also more likely to start a house fire than someone who has fewer.

But a fire can strike any household, and taking precautions is the best way to stay safe.

What to do if there’s a fire

The best way to put out a fire depends on what kind of situation it is, but in most cases a fire extinguisher is your best bet. If something in your home catches fire:

  1. Try to put it out if it’s safe to do so.
  2. If you can’t put it out, get everyone out of the house.
  3. Call 911 as quickly as possible.

How to put out kitchen fires

Your best bet is generally to try smothering the flames.

  • Microwave fires. Don’t open the door. Instead, turn off the microwave immediately and unplug it if it’s safe to do so. The fire should smother itself.
  • Oven fires. The same principle applies as microwave fires. The safest thing to do is turn everything off, keep the oven closed and let the fire smother itself. If you try to save your food, or your oven, you risk spreading the fire.
  • Stovetop fires. Turn the stove off if possible and then smother the flames by dropping a pan lid over it. If it’s too big for that, use your fire blanket or fire extinguisher.

You should never:

  • Use water on grease or oil fires. This can cause the burning oil to splatter everywhere, including on you.
  • 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. Oven mitts are not fireproof.
  • Try smothering a fire with flour or other flammables. Ingredients like sugar or flour can catch fire or explode.

Bottom line

The best way to protect your home from fires is to prevent them. But sometimes preventive measures aren’t enough, and a homeowners insurance policy can help rebuild your home after a fire.

To get started, compare homeowners insurance policies to find one that fits your needs.

Frequently asked questions about house fires

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