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Stand By Your Pan

Fire Prevention Week (FPW) is an annual commemoration of the Great Chicago Fire (1871); the conflagration began on 8 October and burned through 9 October killing 250 people, leaving 100,000 homeless, and burned more than 2,000 acres.  Each year, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) teams up with fire protection and fire service organizations across North America to promote fire safety.  This year’s theme for FPW is Preventing Kitchen Fires.

The doorbell rings, your phone chimes a text message from the Living Room, or your daughter needs help with her homework.  No matter the reason, you step away from preparing dinner, get distracted, and ten minutes later the smell of smoke fills your house.  According to statistics from NFPA, fire departments responded to an average of 156,600 cooking-related fires each year between 2007 and 2011 in the US.  This year’s theme was selected to remind all of us that unsafe kitchen practices, including leaving cooking unattended, are a recipe for disaster.


As a volunteer firefighter, I have seen it myself.  Sitting down to dinner with my family and my pager sounds for a structure fire.  The time of day, en route to the address, you have a pretty good sense that the fire is going to be in the kitchen.  After extinguishing the fire, removing the stove/oven from the house, tearing open the walls behind searching for heat and fire extension, and evacuating smoke (and water) from the house, we know that the Chief Officer hears from the homeowner that they “only stepped away for a minute.”  It only takes a few minutes for a dangerous fire to start.  If we’re lucky and are alerted in time, we can at best limit the fire damage to the kitchen, but the smoke and water extend the impact to the rest of the house.  In extreme cases the occupant leaves, or worse falls asleep, there is a delay in our notification and the fire extends.  The take away message is that there is no safe time for the cook to step away from a hot stove.  A few key points to remember from NFPA:

  • Stay in the kitchen when you are frying, grilling, or broiling food. If you must leave the room even for a short period of time, turn off the stove.
  • When you are simmering, baking, or roasting food, check it regularly, stay in the home, and use a timer to remind you.
  • Keep cooking areas clean and clear of combustibles (e.g., potholders, towels, rags, drapes, and food packaging).
  • Keep children away from cooking areas by enforcing a “kid-free zone” of three feet around the stove/oven.
  • If you have a fire in your microwave, turn it off immediately and keep the door closed.  Never open the door until the fire is completely out.  If in doubt, get out of the home and call the fire department
  • Always keep an oven mitt and a lid nearby.  If a small grease fire starts in a pan, smother the flames by carefully sliding the lid over the pan (make sure you are wearing the oven mitt).  Turn off the burner.  Do not move the pan.  To keep the fire from restarting, do not remove the lid until it is completely cool.  Never pour water on a grease fire.  If the fire does not go out, get out of the home and call the fire department.
  • If an oven fire starts, turn off the heat and keep the door closed.  If the fire does not go out, get out of the home and call the fire department.

Cooking fires can quickly become deadly, too many homes have been damaged or destroyed, memories lost, and even people injured or killed by fires that are easily avoided.  Please follow these simple points to keep you, your family, and your home safe.  Firefighters would love to be in your kitchen, but only when you invite them to dinner.

Image courtesy of artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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