I can smell it

These were the famous words of a now-retired lieutenant from Truck 14. He would say this if we got dispatched to a structure fire in our area, though, sometimes we had to ask him what he smelled if we got there and nothing was burning. In this article, I want to talk about the fire cause that I would say still sits at the top of the list for residential fires – the dreaded cooking-related fire. It is in the kitchen that the elements of the fire triangle exists – heat, fuel and oxygen. Not only are they present, but are also present more frequently than in any other room.

I have always told you that cooking is a full-time job. Distractions such as phone calls, checking on children or attempting to multi-task might be all that is needed for a fire to start in your kitchen. The goal is not to forget that you are cooking. Carrying a wooden spoon with you, if you leave the kitchen while cooking, will remind you that something is cooking that you need to return to.

Other contributing factors that I used to see in multi-family settings more than single-family fires were the ones that involved someone putting a pan of food or oil on the stove and falling asleep or completely forgetting and leaving their apartment, though the possibility is just as real in the single-family setting. After the liquid is burnt off, the food begins to burn. In the situation of cooking oil, the oil heats to its ignition temperature and ignites. Incidentally, what do you do if a pan catches on fire in your kitchen, with you at home? The answer is that it depends on whether or not the fire is contained to the pan. If the fire has spread to the cabinets, get everyone out and call 9-1-1. If it is contained to the pot or pan, slide a larger cover or cookie sheet over the pan. The oxygen will be cut off, and the fire will go out. Do not attempt to move the pan, as the heat and the fuel are still present, and if oxygen is reapplied, the fire will reignite. If you have a fire extinguisher close by, you can use it, instead of the cookie sheet. Remember, pull the pin, aim the nozzle, squeeze the handle and sweep.

If you have the mindset that a kitchen fire is in your future, how will you prepare? The reactive measures that will afford the greatest chance of survival for you and your family are properly located and operating smoke alarms, as well as a residential sprinkler system. The myths and the realities of sprinkler systems still cause them to be a bit taboo. Yes, a sprinkler system will cause water damage when activated. No, the entire system does not activate when one head activates, unless it is a deluge system, and you do not see these except in warehouse or industrial settings. The question is, what is your family worth?

When I left the job, 3.7 out of every 10 fires occurred in the kitchen. I saw a report a few weeks ago where a victim died because of a kitchen fire in his home. The kitchen not only has the ingredients for your favorite dish, but also the ingredients for your next house fire. It may not happen for years, but your first fire could be the reason that a loved one dies. As the old saying used to go, “if you are not careful, you might have unexpected guests for dinner.”

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