Smarter: The Most Unexpected Causes of Home Fires

    Dishtowel on fire next to pot on gas stove Photo: Getty Images

    This week I’m stopping you from committing a fire safety blunder that might cost you dearly. Also in this issue: Does bread lead to weight gain, and how to get rid of that stinky smell coming from your car’s air conditioning.

    THE BIG STORY:

    ‘Too Few Cooks in the Kitchen’

    When I was growing up, my father was obsessed with fire safety. Every time we left our apartment, he would check to see if the stove was on. 

    He also spoke frequently about the dangers of home fires. I may be the writer in the family, but he was the master storyteller when it came to the horrors of the hearth, describing with morbid matter-of-factness fires that could spread through homes in a matter of minutes and leave people injured and dead and all their possessions burnt to a crisp. 

    I think it’s because of him that I’ve always been slightly fearful of fires, and for good reason. In 2020, the rate of deaths per 1,000 home fires has stayed around the same as it was in 1980, even though the number of fires in the U.S. has dropped by around 50 percent compared with 1980.

    To help identify fire safety problems people might be unaware of, here’s a rundown of some of the leading causes of home fires, as well as a few surprising ones.

    More From the Smarter Newsletter

    What are the most common causes?
    Cooking is the No.1 reason, causing 49 percent of reported home fires in the U.S. from 2015 to 2019, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing fire, electrical, and related hazards. Most cooking fires involve the stove and are caused by people walking away while food is still cooking. 

    “It only takes a second for that food to light up, and you have a window of about 30 to 45 seconds before that fire is beyond your control,” says Michael Kozo, captain of fire safety at the New York City Fire Department. “So you need to be in the kitchen monitoring that at all times.”

    Heating equipment is the second-leading cause of home fires. Space heaters, in particular, account for 4 out of 5 home heating fire deaths. For safety, the NFPA advises that you turn portable heaters off when you leave the room or go to bed. Also, keep space heaters at least 3 feet away from combustible materials, such as furniture, bedding, and curtains. (You can read more safety tips on operating space heaters here.)

    What about fire causes that might be more unexpected?
    The overuse or misuse of extension cords or power strips is a common fire cause that may surprise people, according to the Chicago Fire Department Office of Fire Investigation. Cords or plugs are involved in only 1 percent of home fires, but 7 percent of the deaths, and extension cords are responsible for many of them, according to the NFPA.

    Many people don’t know that appliances that cool or heat, such as refrigerators, air conditioners, space heaters, microwaves, and toaster ovens, should be plugged directly into a wall outlet. If you run them on an extension cord, you risk overloading the cord’s electrical capacity and causing it to overheat, which might lead to a fire, Kozo says. The extension cord is for temporary use only and is more well-suited for low-voltage tasks like charging your phone or plugging in your TV or fan. 

    Another fire cause that has grown in numbers in recent years is the lithium-ion batteries in electric bikes and electric scooters, Kozo says. A defective lithium-ion battery can overheat and trigger a chemical reaction that leads to a fire. 

    To prevent a fire from one of these batteries, use the charger that comes with the device instead of buying a random charger online. Don’t charge overnight, because you risk overcharging and overheating the battery, and if possible, charge your electric bike or scooter outdoors.

    And if you have a furnace in your home, make sure you clean out the soot because it can be a potential fire hazard, says Capt. Sedrick Robinett of the Houston Fire Department. A failure to clean heating equipment that relies on the burning of fuel, such as fireplaces or woodstoves, is a leading cause of home heating fires. (And remember to have your chimney inspected and cleaned annually.)

    What are important fire safety habits people don’t realize they’re doing wrong?
    If you smoke, it’s best to submerge your cigarette butts in a jar or can of water and let them sit there for a bit, Kozo says. Some people might run their cigarettes quickly under a sink without fully extinguishing them and then throw them into the garbage, which could later cause a fire.

    And just like you shouldn’t leave your cooking unmonitored, especially when you’re frying food on the stovetop, you should also not leave your candles unattended, says Susan McKelvey, communications manager of the NFPA. On average, 20 home candle fires are reported every day. To be safe, blow out candles when you go to sleep or leave the room, and don’t light candles in the bedroom or in areas where you might fall asleep.

    Another thing to note is that people often assume they have more time than they actually do to get out during a fire, says Steve Kerber, PhD, executive director of the Fire Safety Research Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on fire safety. In reality, you may only have 3 minutes or less to escape once a fire starts in your home.

    The importance of having working smoke detectors in your home cannot be stressed enough. Almost 3 out of 5 home fire deaths occur in homes without a working smoke detector, so it’s important to check your detectors monthly and change them every 10 years.

    For the best smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, check out CR’s picks here (available to CR members). And for more information on how to escape a home fire quickly and safely, check out advice from the NFPA’s Fire Prevention Week.


    DOUBLING DOWN

    We asked dozens of CR members to test out their fire extinguishers at home. Around half of the extinguishers were 20 or more years old, and a few didn’t work at all, as you can see in the video below.

    @consumerreports Avoid a fire extinguisher fail 🔥 In a CR study, almost half of the extinguishers examined were 20 or more years old, though those devices typically have a lifespan of only 12 years. #firefighter #fire #fireextinguisher ♬ original sound - Consumer Reports

    One of the significant facets of fire safety protection is to remember to replace your fire extinguishers, which typically have a maximum life span of 12 years.

    For advice on where to store your fire extinguisher in your home and where not to, like right next to your stove, read here.


    QUIZ

    Myth or truth: Eating bread leads to weight gain.

    (The answer’s at the end.)


    ASK AN EXPERT

    Question:
    Is there any way to stop bug bites from itching? I get bites when I’m working in the vegetable garden, and sometimes they itch for days.

    Answer:
    Bug itches are truly the worst. Here are a couple of things you can try: First apply an ice pack or cool compress to the area where it itches. Calamine lotion is also helpful, and an over-the-counter steroid cream like hydrocortisone is super-effective for easing itches, says Paul Hope, a CR home and appliances writer who has written about how to get rid of mosquitoes

    And if all these things don’t work, you can take an over-the-counter oral antihistamine.  

    Have any questions for our experts? Ask us anything.


    THE GOOD STUFF

    These are the cars that are the most expensive to gas up.

    @consumerreports Yep, these trucks and SUVs are gas guzzlers 🫣⛽️. See ratings and reviews at cr.org/cars. #carsoftiktok #cartok #carcommunity ♬ original sound - Consumer Reports

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    🍂 Best Leaf Blowers of 2022

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    TECH SUPPORT

    Here’s one thing CR technology writer Thomas Germain, who writes frequently about digital privacy, would never do: skip software and firmware updates.

    Why? Because these updates on your phone and computer often include important patches to security problems, and if you ignore them, you can become more vulnerable to cyberattacks. Here are four other things Thomas says you should stop doing.


    QUIZ ANSWER

    The answer is bread doesn’t necessarily cause weight gain. While there is some research that shows that white bread might lead to the widening of a waistline, whole-grain bread seems less likely to spur weight gain.


    Smarter Owl Icon

    "We have a code bread situation."



    Headshot of CR Author Pang-Chieh (BJ) Ho

    Pang-Chieh Ho

    I'm a newsletter writer who likes looking into the different ways we can live smarter. The topics I cover typically explore unanswered questions we have about the products we use every day and bridge the gaps between what owners' manuals advise and what we actually do. In my spare time, I like to take photos, critique movies out loud while I watch (at home!), and take care of my ever-increasing plant "children."