2013-11-15 / In the Know

Attention is key to cooking fire safety

By B. Michael Thurlow Special contributor

Fires originating from cooking appliances account for the largest shares of home structure fires and associated fire injuries in North America, and electric ranges are by far the leading cause of home cooking appliance fires.

Range fires accounted for 84 percent of all fire deaths involving cooking appliances.

Most home cooking fires involve frying on an electric range. Frying fires often ignited because the temperature of the cooking materials exceeded safe levels.

Overheating during frying creates the type of scenario where smoke and splattering could have been observed and the burners turned down if the cook was present and observant, but unfortunately that isn’t always the case. In these fires it is likely that the temperature of the cooking oils exceeded their autoignition temperature, which for vegetable oil is approximately 763 degrees.

Boiling dominated fires that took more than an hour to start, which typically started when the water in a pot boiled away and the pot and or its contents heated to an unsafe temperature.

An attentive cook could have stepped in and intervened to prevent the fire. As you can see the common link here is unattended cooking. Physical conditions such as falling asleep, impairment by alcohol or drugs, or limitations of the cook due to age are all often cited as contributing factors.

Distractions that pull the cook outside of the kitchen (doorbell, screaming child, phone calls and social interactions) are another. An attentive cook can prevent the development of hazardous conditions that could lead to a fire, such as cooking materials overheating or water boiling away.

Unfortunately we believe that actual cooking fire losses are much greater than statistics indicate. It is estimated that cooking equipment is involved in an estimated 4.7 million home fires per year that are never reported to fire departments, or two-thirds of all unreported home fires.

These unreported home cooking fires are 50 times as common as reported fires and account for about 100,000 fire injures a year, or eight times as many injuries as reported fires.

One of the other significant issues with cooking safety is leaving combustibles too close to the range. Often the countertops near a stove or range become collection spots for bills, mail, paperwork, and other readily combustible materials.

Even worse, some people leave plastic spoon holders or other items directly on the stovetop. It doesn’t take much for these types of items to catch fire if your attention is diverted or hot grease boils over.

Three keys to eliminating or minimizing the effects of cooking fires are paying attention and being present; keeping the area around the range clean and uncluttered; and knowing what to do if a fire starts. Everyone should have a multi-purpose (A, B, C) fire extinguisher readily available in their kitchen.

If you have a grease fire, the most effective way to extinguish it is to cover it with a solid cover, effectively smothering it. Never spray water on a grease fire or try to move a pan that is on fire to the sink.

More often than not it is too hot to handle and may cause more damage by igniting curtains, dish towels, clothing or other combustibles.

Cooking fires and the deaths, injuries and loses that come from them are easily preventable by following some of these common sense rules. If you have any questions about this article or any fire department issue please contact Chief Thurlow at mthurl@ ci.scarborough.me.us or 730-4201. B. Michael Thurlow is fire chief for Scarborough.

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