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Stopping Fires Before They Start

Most fires are caused through human error. Learn how to prevent fires in your house.

Stopping Fires Before They Start

Baby, It's Cold Outside

When the temperature falls outside, the heat comes on inside. Most of the fires caused by central heating, fireplaces, wood stoves, and supplemental heaters are due to human error and are easily prevented.

Safety Savvy

The Consumer Product Safety Commission offers safety information for operating home heating equipment. To request publications, call the hotline at 800-638-2772, or check You also can call CPSC's fax-on-demand service, 301-504-0051, from the handset of a fax machine to receive materials immediately.

Here are a few key safety rules:

  • Keep space heaters at least three feet from furniture, drapes, bedding, or anything else that will burn. Don't leave them turned on when you aren't in the room or are sleeping. Supervise kids and pets around space heaters.
  • Have heating systems, chimneys, flues, and wood stoves inspected annually and cleaned if necessary. Regular cleaning of chimneys is especially important because it removes creosote build-up that can cause chimney fires.
  • Put a screen around your fireplace so sparks can't fly out and ignite the carpet.
  • Carefully follow the manufacturer's instructions on using a wood-burning stove. Use an approved floor protector that extends 18 inches beyond the stove on all sides.
Watch Out!

Don't pile newspapers, oily rags, clothes, or other flammables near your furnace, water heater, or space heaters.

Stand by Your Pan

Cooking is a leading cause of home fires. Keep a close eye on foods cooking on the burners. Don't leave the stove if you are frying something in grease. For foods baking in the oven, set the timer and check on them every half-hour or so.

Don't store things over your stove that could catch on fire, such as pot holders or plastic utensils. Don't put cookies or candy above the stove, either, so your child isn't tempted to climb up to get it. Keep young children out of the kitchen when you cook.

If you're sterilizing baby bottle nipples, be especially careful not to leave a pan of nipples boiling in water for so long that the water evaporates and the rubber ignites. It's happened many times. Play it safe and set a timer to remind you to turn off the stove.

Cigarettes, Cigars, and Pipes

Smoking materials are the leading cause of fire-related deaths. Many of these fire deaths result from smoking in bed.

Watch Out!

Vacuum cleaners pose a unique risk. Tots have suffered friction burns when their hands or feet got caught in the beater bar. When you leave a room, unplug the vacuum so that it can do no harm should a curious youngster tip it over and try to turn it on.


Because kids are harmed by second-hand smoke and can be burned by cigarettes and the fires they cause, it's best to keep your children away from those who smoke. Hire only a non-smoker as a baby-sitter, for example.

If you're reluctant to ask visitors in your home to refrain from smoking, provide deep ash trays, and douse the butts before tossing them into a trash bin. Never let anyone smoke while holding your baby, and make sure lighters or matches aren't left in a purse or somewhere else a child could find them.

An electric current can be mighty powerful. Just because you can't see it or smell it doesn't mean it's not dangerous. Some words to the wise:

  • Keep cords out of reach, and cover outlets. A child who chews an electrical cord might be permanently disfigured from burns that can result.
  • Some fires start when outlets are overloaded or when electric cords are frayed or cracked. Don't run cords under rugs or heavy furniture; they can get damaged this way.
  • Get in the habit of unplugging appliances that heat up—coffee maker, toaster, iron, hairdryer, etc.—when they are not in use.
Gadget Guide

Some homeowners install security bars to protect them from intruders without realizing the bars can trap them inside during a fire. There are bars with quick-release devices to eliminate this problem. For a free information packet, call the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) at 617-984-7826.


Keep flammable liquids, such as gasoline, kerosene, and paint thinner, away from heat and flames. Gasoline is the most dangerous of these and should be used only outdoors. If you store gasoline, keep it in a sealed, approved safety container. Flammable liquids are best stored in a shed or detached garage and, of course, out of the reach of children.


Loose-fitting clothing can be a fire hazard if children brush against a flame, such as a match or stove burner. Girls in billowing nightgowns or kids who sleep in oversized cotton T-shirts have air pockets between the fabric and their bodies that can fuel a flame once it catches on the clothing.

It's best to choose either tight-fitting sleepwear or garments that have been chemically treated to resist burning. Note that polyester doesn't need to be chemically treated because it is inherently flame-resistant.

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