It’s the middle of the night, and a faint crackling sound has woken you from sleep. You smell smoke and open your bedroom door to investigate. Suddenly, you’re blasted with heat and the eerily bright orange light of a raging fire in the hallway.
Would you know what to do in such a horrific situation? Do you have the tools and know-how to keep your family and pets safe if a house fire occurs or you get caught in a wildfire?
Most people don’t realize how little time they have to get out of a house fire safely. According to Ready.gov, it only takes 30 seconds for a house fire to become life-threatening, and most people have less than two minutes to escape before they’re completely trapped.
But there are many fire safety tips you can use to protect your family and home and avoid a tragedy.
How Common Are House Fires?
Most of us assume a house fire won’t happen to us. However, house fires are fairly common.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that in 2019, there were 361,500 residential fires in the United States.
The NFPA also reports that 3,700 civilians (non-firefighters) lost their lives in fires in 2019, and 16,600 civilians were injured. In America, someone dies in a structure fire every two hours and 56 minutes.
Your risk of dying in a residential fire can increase based on where you live. According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), the seven states with more than 20 fire deaths (excluding firefighters) and the highest fire death rates in 2019 were:
- West Virginia
Tragically, fire deaths are increasing. The USFA reports that fire deaths in 2018 were 20.5% higher than in 2009.
According to the NFPA, property loss totals from residential fires for 2019 averaged $25,500 per home, up 11% from the year before. The USFA notes that financial losses from fires have increased 90.6% since 2009.
Fire Safety Tips
Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to protect your family and home from the devastation of fire.
1. Install Smoke Detectors
Over the years, smoke detectors have saved countless lives, and they provide an early warning that can give you and your family enough time to escape. According to the NFPA, almost 3 of every 5 home fire deaths occurred in homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms.
You should have working smoke detectors installed on every level of your home. The NFPA recommends installing one inside every sleeping room and an additional smoke detector outside each sleeping area. Wire all of them together so if one goes off, they all go off. Replace these smoke alarms every 10 years.
The NFPA also recommends you have a smoke alarm in the kitchen. However, it needs to be at least 10 feet away from cooking appliances to minimize false alarms.
It’s also smart to install smoke detectors that detect carbon monoxide. That’s especially important if you have a wood stove or fireplace you use in the winter.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends you change the batteries during daylight saving time and test smoke detectors monthly to make sure they’re still working. To prevent false alarms, keep your detectors clean and free of cobwebs and dust.
2. Install Fire Extinguishers & Fire Ladders
You should have a fire extinguisher on every level of your home, including the basement and garage, and an extra one in the kitchen.
Install your fire extinguishers high on the wall so they’re easily accessible and away from children.
You also need to know how to use your fire extinguishers. Read the directions and become familiar with how they operate since you won’t have time to learn how to use them when a fire breaks out. Call your local fire department to see if they offer any training for homeowners to use a fire extinguisher.
Additionally, try to stick with one manufacturer for all your fire extinguishers. Fire extinguishers from different manufacturers operate differently, and having different instructions for each extinguisher can be confusing if a fire breaks out.
If you have to use your fire extinguisher, remember to aim low (toward the base of the fire), squeeze the lever slowly and evenly, and sweep back and forth.
If you have a multiple-story home, you should have at least two fire ladders upstairs kept in separate rooms just in case one room is inaccessible due to fire. Show older children how to set up the fire ladder at least once per year so all of you know how to use it safely.
3. Plan Your Escape
A home fire escape plan is essential because when a fire breaks out, every second counts. Remember, a fire can turn life-threatening in 30 seconds. And the majority of fires break out late at night or early in the morning when everyone is asleep, so your family needs to know what to do before an emergency happens. Before the worst happens, make sure everyone in your family knows how to get out and that there’s nothing to stop that from happening.
Create a Fire Escape Plan
To make a home fire escape plan, start by drawing your home’s floor plan using the NFPA’s escape grid. Find at least two escape routes out of every room in your home, and map them on the grid.
Talk with your family, including young children, about how they can escape each room of the house. Showing them your home’s floor plan can help children better visualize where they should go in case of fire. Designate a meeting place outside your home where everyone will gather. It can be a tree well away from your home’s structure or a neighbor’s front porch.
Next, practice escaping each room with your family with a fire drill. Follow these steps from the Burn Institute’s Fire Safe Kid program to teach your family how to exit a fire safely.
- Learn to Get Out of Bed. During a fire, it’s best not to jump up the way you usually do. Instead, when the fire alarm goes off, roll out of bed and crawl to the escape route.
- Stay Low. At eye level, air temperatures can reach 600 degrees F (315 degrees C) or hotter, which can scorch your lungs and melt your clothing. The air near the floor can be as cool as 100 degrees F — hot but survivable. The air will also be less smokey near the floor. Crawl as low as you can on the floor to stay away from smoke. If your escape route involves going downstairs, don’t get up. Slide down the stairs on your belly or go down on your hands and knees.
- Learn to Touch Doors Safely. Touch the door with the back of your hand or lightly touch the doorknob. If the door feels cool, use your body as a brace and open the door slightly, just enough to check for smoke. If there is no smoke, exit the room and follow your home’s escape route. If there’s smoke or fire in the hallway, close the door and leave the room through another door or window.
- Practice Closing the Door Behind You. As you exit your home, close every door behind you. That can help slow the progression of the fire.
- Help Others. If you have infants, people with mobility challenges, or older adults living in your home, assign someone in your family to help them get out of the house. If they can’t get to them because of the fire, they should exit the house and immediately inform firefighters. Staying only adds more risk for rescuers when they have two people to save rather than one.
- Make Sure Everyone Knows 911. Everyone in your family should know how to dial 911 or the phone number for your local fire department to report a fire.
- Never Go Back Inside. Ensure everyone in your family knows they should never — under any circumstances — go back into a burning building. If someone in your household is missing, inform firefighters as soon as they arrive. They have the tools and skills to perform rescues.
Practice the fire drill in the dark with the smoke alarms going off since these are the most common conditions to experience a house fire in. Practicing a fire drill at night with the fire alarm sounding when the kids are asleep also helps you determine whether the alarm is loud enough to wake them. If the sound of the fire alarm doesn’t awaken any children or adults, assign a family member to take charge of them during a real fire. Perform a realistic fire drill at least twice per year so your family stays comfortable with getting out quickly.
But preparing for a fire isn’t over just because you know the route. You also have to make sure every point of egress is accessible in case someone needs to escape.
Check Your Home’s Windows
Make sure everyone can easily open all the windows in your home and they can remove or kick away the screens.
If your doors and windows have security bars, make sure the bars have emergency-release latches on the inside so someone can open them quickly during an emergency. Show your children how to use the emergency-release latch so they know what to do.
If windows are nailed or painted shut, remove the nails or paint so everyone in your family can get out.
Make Sure Your Home Is Visible
Go outside and make sure you can easily see your house number from the street. If you can’t, paint your house number on the curb or install larger house numbers so firefighters or other first responders can easily find your home.
Clear Your Escape Route
You also need to go through your home’s escape routes and clear these paths of any furniture or clutter that might slow or stop your family from getting out quickly.
- Move televisions out of the way of windows or doors.
- If any doors in your home are padlocked, take these locks off and use locks anyone in your family can open easily.
- If any doors are blocked by toys or clutter, remove them so the doorway is clear.
- During the holidays, don’t put Christmas trees or other large decorations in front of doorways or windows.
If you use plastic insulation on your windows to lower your heating bill, make sure everyone in your family knows how to take it off so they can escape.
4. Use Space Heaters Safely
Portable space heaters can provide a convenient way to heat cold or drafty rooms in your home. However, they pose a significant fire risk. The CPSC estimates that space heaters cause 1,100 fires per year, resulting in 50 deaths. The NFPA reports that space heaters account for 43% of home heating fires and 85% of associated deaths.
To use a space heater safely, follow these tips:
- Give It Space. Keep children and pets at least 3 feet away from your space heater. The heater also needs to be at least 3 feet away from curtains, furniture, beds, and papers.
- Don’t Use Extension Cords. Space heaters should always plug directly into the wall. Never use an extension cord or power strip when operating a space heater.
- Don’t Run It All Night. Never run your space heater while you’re asleep or away from home.
- Check the Cord Often. Check the cord and plug of your space heater frequently to make sure there are no signs of melting or burning. You also need to check the wall outlet and faceplate for any signs of excess heat. Unplug the space heater and touch the outlet’s faceplate with your hand to make sure it is cool to the touch. If it is warm or hot, discontinue use and call an electrician.
Know that not all space heaters are safe. Check the Consumer Reports guide for space heaters to see which manufacturers and models are safest. Before you buy any model, make sure it is certified by a nationally recognized testing laboratory, such as UL (Underwriters Laboratories).
5. Practice Open Fire Safety
Fireplaces and wood stoves can be a cozy and economical way to heat your home in winter. However, they also present a significant fire risk, especially if you don’t take safety precautions.
To operate your fireplace and wood stove safely and reduce the risk of a house fire, the NFPA recommends you clean your chimney each year. Schedule this cleaning and inspection in the late summer or fall, before you have to rely on your fireplace or wood stove for heat. You can find a certified chimney sweep in your area through the Chimney Sweep Safety Institute of America.
Once cooler weather comes, never leave an unattended fire burning in a fireplace or wood stove, and never leave children or pets in the room alone with a burning fire. Also, keep anything flammable at least 3 feet away from your fireplace or wood stove. If you have to leave the house, make sure the fire is completely out before you go.
It’s also smart to invest in a fireplace screen. Fireplace screens help keep burning embers from popping into the room and igniting something outside the 3-foot safety zone. A screen can also help protect children or pets from accidental burns, especially with wood stoves with glass windows.
You also need to consider candle safety. Never place lighted candles near any combustible material, such as curtains or pillows, and never leave a burning candle unattended. If children are in the room, place the candle on a mantle or open shelf out of reach.
Last, keep a fire extinguisher in a closet or on a shelf within easy reach of the fireplace or wood stove.
6. Check Electrical Safety
Fire Rescue 1 says faulty electrical outlets and outdated appliances cause most electrical fires. If your electrical outlets are old, have them replaced by a master electrician.
According to Bob Vila, there are several ways to identify electrical outlets in need of replacement:
- Warmth or Heat. Use your hands to feel the outlet. If you detect any warmth or notice signs of scorching or melting on the plastic, replace it immediately.
- Smoke. Smoke from any electrical outlet is an indicator it’s a significant fire danger.
- Loose Connections. If any outlets are loose in the wall or they no longer hold a plug tightly (the plug falls out when plugged in), replace the outlet.
- Sounds. If you hear buzzing or popping sounds coming from an electrical outlet, turn off the power to that part of your home and immediately call a licensed electrician.
- Frayed Wires. Take off your electrical outlets’ plastic covers and examine the wiring. Wires can crack or fray from age, heat, or bending. Nails or screws can also pinch them. If you see any damage to the outlet’s wires, call an electrician.
Also check that you’re not using more electricity than your circuits can handle. For example, if you’re constantly tripping your home circuit breakers or you notice lights dimming when you use multiple outlets at once (such as using the vacuum cleaner and the microwave at the same time), call an electrician to examine your home’s circuit breaker and make adjustments.
Lamps and light fixtures are another potential cause of house fires. Ensure the bulbs you have installed in every light and lamp in your home don’t exceed the wattage recommended by the manufacturer.
Last, make sure you use power strips and surge protectors safely. Power strips temporarily add outlets to an area, while you can use surge protectors long-term to protect your electronic equipment from voltage spikes.
When it comes to power strips, only plug in light-load appliances, such as computers or lamps. Never use power strips on heavy-load appliances, like microwaves, refrigerators, stoves, or vacuum cleaners. They can overheat and ignite when you use them for extended periods. It’s OK to use surge protectors for some heavy-load appliances, such as microwaves. But check the safety instructions or another expert source about individual devices. For example, a refrigerator may have mechanisms to protect itself from electrical surges, and a surge protector can interfere with those mechanisms and cause your refrigerator not to come back on when it’s safe.
7. Remember Natural Gas Safety
Many homes use natural gas for cooking, heating water, and to power the furnace. A leak in the natural gas lines or fittings could result in an explosion. Natural gas has no odor of its own, so they add an odorant that smells of rotten eggs for safety.
If you smell natural gas, get your family out of your home immediately and call 911. Never call for help while still inside the home. The sparks generated from the phone could cause an explosion.
If your furnace runs on natural gas, have it serviced annually by a licensed heating, ventilation, and air conditioning professional to ensure all the pipes and fittings are in good condition. It’s also crucial you keep the area around your furnace clean by vacuuming dirt, dust, and debris and keeping the site free of clutter.
You also need to take precautions with your water heater. Water heaters are often in basements or closets, which people rarely clean. Never store combustible materials near your gas stove or water heater. That’s especially important with solvents, such as paints and paint thinners.
8. Teach Your Children Fire Safety
If you have children, it’s crucial you teach them what to do if a fire ignites in your home.
Explain What Smoke Detectors Do
Start by showing them where all the smoke detectors are and explain what they do. Next, let them hear what the smoke alarm sounds like when it goes off. It can be scary, especially for young children, so they need to hear it and get used to it when there is no emergency.
Practice “Stop, Drop, & Roll”
In addition to practicing your evacuation plan with your kids, you also need to teach them to “stop, drop, and roll” if their hair or clothing catches fire and help them practice the technique.
Teach Them Not to Hide
Many child fire deaths occur because the child tried to hide from the fire, typically in a closet or under the bed, or they tried to hide from firefighters, who can look scary in their firefighting gear, especially in the dark.
If you have young children, make sure they understand they cannot hide from a fire. They must get out as quickly as possible. Show them what firefighters look like with all their gear on. If possible, take them on a tour at your local fire department so they learn not to be afraid. You can also watch an online video, like the one starring Sparky the Dog, of what firefighters look like with all their gear on.
Make It Fun
Make learning about fires fun using learning materials at Sparky.org, the National Fire Protection Association’s website for kids, or FireSafeKid.org, run by the Burn Institute. Both websites have interactive games and activities to help kids of all ages learn what to do during a fire.
9. Stay Safe in the Kitchen
According to the NFPA, cooking is the leading cause of residential fires. So it should come as no surprise the NFPA also found there are more fires on Thanksgiving Day than any other day of the year. The day before Thanksgiving and Christmas Day are a close second and third for residential fires.
To stay safe in the kitchen, focus on fire prevention.
- Make sure you never leave cooking food unattended.
- If you have to leave the kitchen, turn off the stovetop first.
- If your hair is long, keep it pulled up so there is no risk of it catching on a hot pot or burning flame.
- Don’t wear loose clothing or long, dangling jewelry, which might ignite if it gets too close to the range.
- Be extra careful if there are children in the home. Keep all pot and skillet handles turned inward so a child can’t reach up and grab a hot pot.
- Keep any combustible material away from your cooktop. That includes paper products, dish towels, wrappers, or oven mitts.
- Clean up spilled grease as soon as it cools. Built-up grease can ignite quickly.
If a grease fire does ignite, never use water to put it out. The water will turn to steam and cause severe burns. It can also splatter the grease and cause the fire to spread.
To put out a small grease fire in a pot or skillet, the NFPA recommends sliding a pot lid over the flames and turning off the burner. Let the pan cool completely, and do not take off the lid until the pan is cool to the touch. Removing the lid too early could cause the fire to reignite.
If the flame is small and manageable, another option from Fire Rescue 1 is to use baking soda or salt to put out the fire. However, never use other cooking powders, such as baking powder or flour to put out a flame. They have different chemical makeups and could make the fire worse.
10. Check Your Insurance Coverage
Know how much of your “main dwelling” — your home’s physical structure — your homeowners insurance covers in the event of a fire. It’s known as “Coverage A” in the breakdown of your homeowners insurance. It doesn’t include the contents of your home or the land, but only the structure.
Next, check that you have proper coverage of your personal property (Coverage C). If your house caught fire, would you have sufficient coverage for everything you own? Does your policy cover the cash value of pricey personal possessions, such as jewelry or computers, or the replacement value? If you’re a renter, make sure you have renters insurance to protect your personal property.
If you feel like your policy doesn’t provide adequate coverage, purchase additional coverage for peace of mind. It’s also the perfect time to price-shop. PolicyGenius gives you quotes from multiple companies within minutes so you know you’re getting the best rates on your homeowner’s insurance.
Next, take pictures and make a video of everything in your home and on your property. Keep a copy of the pictures and video on a USB drive and store it at a friend’s or family member’s home. Also, email yourself a copy of the documents or use online storage. This information helps you provide the necessary evidence to prove what you lost in the fire.
You should also have a fireproof home safe or lockbox to store all your essential documents.
11. Be Extra Careful During Holidays
Winter holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas have the highest number of residential fires. These fires are also more deadly. The Insurance Information Institute reports that 1 in every 32 reported Christmas fires resulted in a death compared to 1 death in every 143 fires the rest of the year.
Be Careful With Turkey Fryers
Frying any type of food increases the risk of a kitchen fire, but turkey fryers are particularly dangerous. That’s because you place them on a stand, which can easily tip over, and they require large amounts of boiling oil.
To reduce the risk of fire when using a turkey fryer, only use it outdoors on a stable surface. Make sure children and pets stay at least 3 feet away from the fryer at all times, and don’t allow any rambunctious games — such as running or ball playing — anywhere near the cooking area.
Putting a turkey into an over-filled turkey fryer can cause the grease to spill and ignite. Before you fill your fryer with oil, put the turkey in and add enough water to cover it. Then, take out the turkey and note where the waterline is. That allows you to better estimate how much oil you need based on how much liquid the turkey displaces when it’s immersed.
To make sure the oil doesn’t overheat and start a fire, check the temperature frequently with a cooking thermometer. The oil should maintain a steady temperature of 350 degrees F (176 degrees C). You can also invest in an oil-less turkey fryer, like the Char-Broil Big Easy oil-less turkey fryer, for a safer and healthier way to cook your turkey.
Also, never put a frozen or partially thawed turkey into the hot oil of a turkey fryer. It will explode and send flames shooting out of the turkey fryer. Working with a local fire department, the CPSC filmed what happens when you put a frozen turkey into a turkey fryer, and one watch will convince you to make sure your turkey is completely thawed and dried before dropping it in (segment starts at 0:53 seconds).
Monitor Your Christmas Tree
One of the reasons for the higher rate of fatalities is Christmas trees, which are highly flammable due to the sap content. The NFPA reports that lighting or electrical cords around the tree cause 44% of Christmas tree fires.
If you put up a Christmas tree, make sure you water it every day. If the water level falls below the stump even once, a seal forms over the cut and the tree can no longer absorb water. Dried-out trees can catch fire within seconds and can catch walls or curtains on fire in less than a minute. This type of fire is also particularly deadly because it gets so hot so quickly.
That said, real Christmas trees are still safer than artificial trees as long as you keep them well watered and at least 3 feet away from any heat source.
Check Holiday Lights Annually
Many families hang holiday lights to add seasonal cheer to their homes. However, the NFPA reports that holiday lights can pose a fire danger if you’re not careful. Follow these tips to use holiday lights safely.
- Don’t Overplug. Don’t plug more than three sets of lights into one extension cord, as that can cause overheating.
- Replace Damaged Lights. Before decorating your holiday tree, look carefully at your holiday lights and other electrical decorations to ensure there are no frayed, cracked, or damaged cords. If you see any exposed wiring or melted plastic, throw the decoration away. You also need to throw away lights if there are any exposed sockets.
- Switch to LED. LED lights are much cooler than electric lights, which means they’re safer to use on a Christmas tree.
- Don’t Use Nails. If you’re hanging outdoor holiday lights, don’t use metal nails or screws. They can puncture the exterior coating of the lights and potentially cause a shock. Instead, use plastic outdoor hanging hooks.
Many people like to use candles to add warmth and ambiance to their home during the winter holidays. However, the Insurance Information Institute reports that candles cause 11% of home fires in December and 10% of fires in November and January.
According to a 2017 survey conducted by Shriners Hospital, 25% of people leave burning candles unattended in their homes, and 27% leave burning candles within reach of children.
To reduce the risk of fire, keep candles a safe distance of 12 inches or more from anything that can burn and never use them to light or decorate a Christmas tree. Tealights placed on top of toilet tanks for holiday parties are particularly dangerous. People sit down, and their hair or clothing can catch fire. Never put burning candles in the bathroom.
If you love the warm glow candles give your home, use battery-operated flameless candles, which are much safer.
What to Do During a Fire
It’s your worst nightmare: Your home is on fire, and you must safely get your family out. What do you need to do to survive?
- Remember Your Escape Plan. Stay low and figure out the safest way to escape. If fire or smoke is blocking your primary escape plan route, make your way out using your secondary exit plan. Don’t forget about door and doorknob checking, the risk of backdraft, closing doors behind you, and getting others out if it’s your responsibility.
- Call 911. Your priority is to get everyone out of the home safely. As soon as you’re out, call 911.
- Cover Vents. If you can’t get out, keep the door closed and cover vents and door cracks with a cloth or blanket. Call 911 and tell the operator where you are. Signal for help outside a window using a cloth or sheet.
- Protect Your Lungs. Cover your mouth and nose with a towel or bandana and do the same for your children to reduce smoke inhalation.
- Stay Out. Once everyone is safely out of the house, stay out. Don’t go back inside for valuables. They’re not worth your life.
Another way to keep your family safe is to keep fire blankets next to each person’s bed. Use fire blankets as a shield from the hot flames and scorching air so everyone can get out of the house without getting burned.
A house fire is everyone’s worst nightmare. However, with planning, preparedness, and practice, a house fire doesn’t have to be a tragedy. You can replace your home and valuables — but not your family. Simple steps like preparing an evacuation plan and practicing with your kids go a long way to ensuring they know what to do and how to get out if a fire occurs.
Do you have any tips for preparing for a house fire or getting out safely?