September 26, 2023

Top five causes of home fires and how to keep loved ones safe

Heating equipment such as wood-burning stoves, are one of the top five causes of home fires.

In the bustle of everyday life, preventing a fire at home is probably not top of mind. But maybe it should be. Research shows that while progress has been made in reducing the number of home fires over the past 40 years, they nevertheless remain a significant threat to people and property across the United States. Let’s take a brief look at the data, identify the top five causes, and review some important steps to prevent home fires and keep loved ones safe.

The facts about home fires

The National Fire Protection Association reports that although fewer home fires occur now than 40 years ago (thanks to widespread use of smoke alarms), fire causes much more damage today than back in 1980. Reasons include open floor plan layouts, which allow fire to spread much more quickly, and the use of lighter, synthetic materials in construction materials and furnishings, which burn faster than natural materials (such as hard wood, solid wood and cotton). In fact, home fires today burn nearly six times faster than they did decades ago. This combination makes home fires deadlier than ever. And rebuilding after a fire is more costly than ever.

Here are some startling facts from the NFPA. In 2021 (latest data available):

  • A home structure fire was reported every 93 seconds somewhere in the United States.
  • A home fire death occurred every 3 hours and 8 minutes.
  • A home fire injury happened every 47 minutes.
  • The total amount of property damage caused by home structure fires added up to $8.9 billion.

Additionally, in 2021, the average homeowner insurance claim for damage caused by fire and lightning was $83,519, according to the Insurance Information Institute. This figure underscores the importance of making sure you have the appropriate amount of coverage in your homeowner or renter policy.

The top five causes of home fires

According to an April 2023 NFPA report, the top five causes of home fires and fire casualties are cooking, heating, electrical systems and appliances (including lighting equipment), intentional fire setting (arson), and smoking. Over the five-year period of 2016-2020, cooking was the leading cause of home fires and home fire injuries. Smoking was the leading cause of home fire deaths.

1. Cooking. Unattended cooking is the source of most kitchen fires. Grease fires, overheated oil, and cooking materials left on the stove or in the oven can ignite and spread quickly. Read this article to learn more.

Quick tips: Never leave cooking food unattended. Use a timer to remind you of cooking tasks. Keep flammable items, like kitchen towels and curtains, away from the stove. Be cautious when using oil for frying and keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen (be sure to learn the proper way to use it!).

2. Heating. Space heaters, furnaces and wood-burning stoves can cause fires if placed too close to flammable materials or if they are not properly maintained. Learn more here.

Quick tips: Keep flammable materials at least three feet away from heating sources. Follow manufacturers’ instructions for space heaters and ensure they have safety features like automatic shut-off. Have chimneys and flues cleaned and inspected regularly by professionals.

3. Electrical Systems and Appliances. Faulty wiring, overloaded outlets, and damaged electrical cords and plugs on lighting equipment and other appliances can lead to electrical fires. Aging electrical systems are particularly susceptible. See this electrical safety checklist.

Quick tips: Regularly inspect and maintain your electrical system, avoid overloading outlets, replace damaged cords promptly, and upgrade old appliances. Avoid running cords under carpets or rugs. Consider hiring a qualified electrician for any electrical work.

4. Intentional Fire Setting (Arson). Arson accounted for 18,200 structure fires, 275 deaths and more than $546 trillion in property losses in the United States in 2021, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Quick tips: Be cautious of strangers on your property, lock doors and windows, and report any suspicious activity to law enforcement. Ensure your home has adequate security measures, such as locks and alarms.

5. Smoking. Discarded cigarettes, matches or smoking materials can ignite fires, especially if they come into contact with flammable substances. Another hazard is careless smoking, such as falling asleep with a lit cigarette. Learn more here.

Quick tips: Institute a “no smoking” policy in your house. Always smoke outside the home and use a deep, sturdy ash tray. Never smoke in bed or when drowsy. Ensure cigarette butts are fully extinguished before disposal.

Other sources of home fires

Other significant sources of home fires include candles (never leave them unattended and keep them away from flammable objects — learn more here); flammable liquids (handle carefully and store in proper containers and away from heat sources); children with access to matches, lighters or flammable materials (keep these items locked up); clothing dryers (be sure to clean the lint trap after every load and regularly inspect and clean the dryer vent); and Christmas trees and decorations (water your live Christmas tree every day, inspect artificial trees and other decorations for faulty wiring, and turn them off when not in use — learn more here).

Important fire-prevention tips

  • Install smoke detectors on every level of your home and test them regularly.
  • Consider installing a sprinkler system for added protection.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher in your kitchen and know how to use it.
  • Close bedroom doors when sleeping.
  • Create and practice a fire escape plan with your family. (Here are some additional ways to prepare your family for a home fire, from the American Red Cross.)
  • Teach children about fire safety and the dangers of playing with fire.
  • Keep important documents in a fireproof safe.
  • Store flammable materials such as gasoline and paint in a secure and well-ventilated area.
  • Stay vigilant and address potential fire hazards promptly. Here is a handy fire-safety checklist from FEMA to help you get started.
  • Make sure you have the proper fire coverage in your homeowner or renter policy to help you recover and rebuild after a fire.

By following these fire-prevention tips and remaining vigilant about fire safety in your home, you can significantly reduce the risk of a devastating home fire. Regular maintenance and awareness are key to keeping your home safeguarded and your loved ones secure. Now is the time to call your Bradish agent to review your homeowner or renter policy — for proper protection and peace of mind.

by Kris A. Mainellis