House Fires: Causes and How to Prevent Them

A lot of things can cause house fires, but a lot of things can prevent them, too.
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Written by Roberta Pescow
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Some of the most common causes of house fires include cooking accidents, electrical malfunctions, home heating incidents, indoor smoking, candles and holiday-related issues. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, residential fires caused $10.8 billion of property damage in 2022 alone

U.S. Fire Administration. Residential Fire Estimate Summaries (2013-2022). Accessed Jul 1, 2024.

Some preventive measures and planning can help keep you and your home safe.

Cooking fires

Kitchens are the leading location of home fires

National Fire Protection Association. Home Structure Fires. Accessed Jun 28, 2024.

Causes of cooking fires

  • Foods are unattended over a lit burner.

  • Overheated or spilled oils ignite.

  • Flammable materials such as paper products, recipe books, food packaging or rags are left too close to the stove.

  • Loose-fitting clothing hangs into the flame or gets caught on a burner.

  • Cooking temperature (or flame) is too high

    Utah Division of Emergency Management. Cooking. Accessed Jun 28, 2024.

How to reduce the chances of a cooking fire

  • Never leave frying, broiling or grilling foods unattended. If you leave the kitchen, even just for a few minutes, turn off the stove.

  • Keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, within easy reach, and check periodically to make sure it has a full charge.

  • Keep young children and pets at least 3 feet from the stove or oven.

  • When cooking, wear close-fitting clothing with tightly rolled-up sleeves.

  • Keep a pan lid nearby when you’re cooking, so that if a grease fire erupts in a pot or pan, you can cover it with the lid to contain and smother the fire.

  • Pot handles should be turned toward the back of the stove, so they can’t be accidentally knocked into and pulled down.

  • Keep all flammable and combustible materials such as paper, rags and cleaning chemicals far away from heat sources.

  • No matter how chilly you’re feeling, never use your stovetop or oven to heat your home.

  • When cooking foods for long periods, use a timer to remind you that you’ve got something cooking.

  • Check kitchen appliances to make sure they’re working properly and free of flammable grease buildup.

  • Don’t cook if you’re too tired or stressed to pay attention to your cooking Home Fires. Accessed Jun 28, 2024.

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Electrical and appliance fires

Electrical fires not only cause injury and death, but they’re also the leading cause of property damage from house fires

NFPA. Home Structure Fires. Accessed Jun 28, 2024.

Causes of electrical and appliance fires

  • Faulty wiring. 

  • Overloaded circuits. 

  • Frayed or improperly used electrical cords. 

  • Accumulated dryer lint. 

  • Overheated, improperly maintained, poorly ventilated or defective appliances and batteries.

How to reduce your chances of an electrical or appliance fire

  • Clean the lint filter in your dryer after every load. Dryer fires alone caused about $81 million in property losses in 2020

    U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. 2018 – 2020 Residential Fire Loss Estimates, table 1-D. Accessed Jul 2, 2024.

  • Never run electrical cords under furniture, carpeting or rugs.

  • Replace all frayed or worn appliance cords.

  • If a light switch feels hot when you touch it, or if the lights are flickering, turn off the fixture or switch immediately and call a professional electrician.

  • If a wall feels hot when you touch it (and there isn’t a heating or hot water pipe behind it), or if you smell something burning in a wall, call the fire department immediately.

  • Never force three-prong appliance cords into two-prong outlets or extension cords.

  • Only use portable generators in well-ventilated outdoor areas.

  • Only plug one high-wattage appliance into an electrical outlet to avoid overloading the circuit.

  • Don’t daisy-chain extension cords, and make sure the extension cords you use are designed to handle the wattage you’re sending through them.

  • Never use light bulbs with a higher wattage than the fixture you’re using them in specifies.

  • Where practical, unplug appliances when they’re not in use.

  • Have your home’s wiring professionally inspected by an electrician periodically, especially if you live in an older home.

  • Keep electrical cords and appliances out of the reach of children, and childproof outlets and plugs

    Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Electrical Fire Safety. Accessed Jun 28, 2024.

Home heating fires

The strong desire to keep warm can increase the risk of fires when days get frigid.

Causes of home heating fires

Space heaters and creosote buildup (from lack of cleaning) are the top causes of house fires, followed by heating fires


How to reduce your chances of a home heating fire

  • Make sure space heaters are in good shape, have labels indicating they meet Underwriters Laboratories safety standards and have a feature that shuts them off automatically if they tip over.

  • Have your heating equipment and chimney inspected every year, and check wood stove pipes regularly for obstructions and damage.

  • Allow 3 feet between all heating equipment (including your furnace, fireplace, wood stove and any space heaters) and anything that can burn (such as curtains, furniture, bedding, rugs, cardboard storage boxes, flammable chemicals, etc.).

  • Never leave space heaters unattended, and never run them when you’re sleeping.

  • Unplug space heaters when you’re not using them.

  • Keep young children away from heating equipment.

  • Only use the proper fuel for your heating equipment.

  • Always use a heavy screen with fireplaces to keep sparks from entering the room, and make sure the fire is completely out before leaving home or going to sleep.

  • All fuel-burning heating equipment should be vented outdoors to help prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

  • If you smell gas, turn off your gas furnace and gas stove, leave your home and call the fire department.

Fires from smoking at home

Although smoking at home only accounts for a small percentage of home fires, smoking-related fires are one of the top causes of home-fire deaths


Causes of fires from smoking

Smoking fires, which often start in the bedroom, living room or den, can ignite when cigarettes or burning embers fall on carpeting, bedding, trash or upholstered furniture.

How to reduce your chances of a fire from smoking

The best way to prevent smoking fires is not to smoke in your house and not to let your guests do so either. If that isn’t possible for you, here are some other precautions you can take

City of Phoenix. Smoking Materials. Accessed Jun 28, 2024.

  • Soak cigarette butts in water before throwing them away.

  • Use large, deep ashtrays that minimize the chances of cigarettes falling out.

  • Fill ashtrays with water when cleaning them, and then dump out the ash.

  • Check furniture carefully (even in crevices and beneath and between cushions) for smoldering embers before leaving a room where anyone has been smoking.

  • Never smoke in bed, when you’re feeling sleepy, or when you’re too distracted to pay attention to what you’re doing.

  • Keep a careful watch on elderly or challenged smokers, or those who have been using any intoxicants.

  • Keep matches, lighters and cigarettes away from children.

Candle fires

Candlelight may be beautiful, but any open flame poses a fire risk when not used safely. Although candle fires represented less than 5% of all home fires from 2018 to 2022, their rate of 94 injuries per 1,000 reported incidents was almost three times the rate of other types of home fires

National Fire Protection Association. Candle Safety. Accessed Jun 28, 2024.

Causes of candle fires

Candle fires can start when flammable items or decor (such as clothing, bedding, paper, bedding, drapery or decorations) are too close to a candle, or when a candle is left unattended, improperly discarded or misused

New York State. Home Fire Prevention. Accessed Jun 28, 2024.

How to reduce your chances of a candle fire

  • Keep candles at least a foot away from anything that can burn.

  • Keep candles away from pets and children.

  • Use sturdy candle holders that won’t tip. 

  • Burn candles on a flat, sturdy surface where they’re unlikely to fall or be knocked over.

  • Extinguish all candles before leaving the room or going to sleep.

  • In situations where you want candlelight but can’t pay attention to, or stay with your candles, consider using flameless candles.

The holidays should be a happy time of year, but unfortunately December has the highest rate of home fires during the year


Causes of holiday-related fires

Holiday-related fires can break out from dried out Christmas trees, electrical issues, unattended candles and unattended stoves.

How to reduce your chances of a holiday-related fire

To keep your family safe from fires during the holidays, follow the safety measures for cooking and candles, plus:

  • Keep natural Christmas trees properly watered.

  • Keep all heat sources at least 3 feet away from Christmas trees.

  • Unplug Christmas trees and all other holiday lights when you leave home or go to sleep.

  • Inspect string lights for broken bulbs or frayed wires, and discard if damaged.

  • Don’t daisy-chain extension cords, and never run more than three strings of holiday lights end-to-end.

  • Use UL-rated clips to hang holiday lights instead of regular nails and staples.

  • Only use holiday lights rated for outdoor use to decorate the exterior of your home.

Frequently asked questions

One of the most important things you can do is install smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors at every level of your home, including the basement. Simple stand-alone smoke detectors are also an option, and they’ve become much more user-friendly in recent years. You can now purchase smoke alarms with 10-year batteries and the capacity to silence false alarms from shower steam or cooking with a push of a button.

If a fire breaks out that’s too large to put out with a pot lid or fire extinguisher, the priority is getting yourself and everyone else out as quickly as possible. Fire spreads quickly, so don’t waste precious time trying to gather stuff to take with you. To keep safe:

  • Drop down close to the floor (below the smoke level) and crawl out of your house as quickly as possible.

  • Call 911 to connect with the fire department. Alert the fire department to any people or pets unable to get out of the house.

  • Feel any door knobs and doors for heat before going through doorways. If smoke is coming under the door, leave it closed and look for another way out.

  • If you’re trapped in a room, seal vents and cracks under doors with tape or cloth. Signal the fire department with a light-colored cloth outside the window or a flashlight.

  • If your clothing catches fire, stop, drop and roll — and cover your face with your hands.

Never just turn everything back on by yourself. Before reconnecting power and utilities, verify with the fire department that it’s safe to do so.

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