Here we are: part three of the Holiday Preparation Toolkit. Today, to jump right into it, you’re going to learn how to avoid a fire in your home. The three most likely culprits, at least this holiday season, are your stove, your chimney, and your Christmas tree.
However, before we get to the details, let me explain myself. I’m not a fire science expert by any means, but I did work for almost a year as a fuel inspection technician. What that means is that I handled and analyzed petroleum fuels. Some of these tests involved determining what’s inside the product, but others involved setting things on fire – safely.
Because of this, and because I worked in a secure facility, I was required to take relatively extensive safety courses that covered everything from trench-digging to fire escape plans. Besides fumes, flames were the most important thing to keep under control in the laboratory, so I studied closely and put the concepts to use in my daily work. I’m going to share some of that science knowledge with you. Hopefully, you’ll learn to handle fires without needing to go through the training or trial-and-error that I did.
I’m going to begin with a disclaimer: not every fire that starts during December or November is holiday-related. You can’t afford to focus on the risks of the season at the expense of ignoring fire safety tips that apply in your daily life. Even your own bed can catch fire, regardless what season, and we will mention bedroom fires in due time. However, the focus in this post is going to be on the risks that are unique to the time of year. Let’s light this thing off.
Kitchen fires are the most common type of household fire, period. These sorts of fires don’t cluster around the holidays in particular, but they remain steady throughout the year. On top of that, you’re liable to expose yourself to risk through the heavy-duty cooking that you might do in November, December, and January.
It should come as no surprise that most fires begin in the kitchen. It’s the only place in your house where hot air, electricity, fire, and oil are permitted to mingle, unless your greasy uncle is renting the room in the basement with the water heater in it.
Because of this “perfect storm” of oil and heat, most kitchen fires are grease fires. The key to grease fires, conceptually, is that without pre-heating fuel and then touching a spark or flame to it, you can’t have fire in the house. The good news: cooking oil is a lousy fuel. (Don’t tell the folks who make biodiesel. We don’t want to discourage them.) If the cooking oil isn’t brought up beyond the temperature where it starts to smoke or boil, it’s pretty unlikely to ignite, even if touched by a flame.
This seemed really counterintuitive to me before my time in the petroleum industry, but after testing the “flash point” of diesel and jet fuels a few times, I’ve grown confident. If you put a lit match into a cup of cold diesel fuel, the match fizzles out. If you’re careful in the kitchen, keeping your stove at a reasonable temperature, the same should happen to you in the unfortunate case that you ended up with a spark or flame coming in contact with an oily pan.
If the oil is sitting at a temperature below 600 F (or 550 F for unrefined coconut oil, which you should never, ever, ever use for frying, thanks to its low smoke point), then the spark or flame should disappear with no fanfare. Sometimes vapors that waft from the oil will ignite, but at moderate levels, that will merely create the often-desirable effect of a flash in the pan.
When your oil begins to flash, of course, this is a sign that you should lower the temperature. This is for two reasons: you’re going to torch the food like an idiot sandwich, and you run the risk of the next pan flash turning into a self-sustaining blaze.
When you’re standing next to the pan and staring at it, this advice is really simple. When it comes to real life and you’re in the other room playing with the dog, that’s how you end up with scorch marks on the cabinet over the stove.
A Case Study: Don’t Do This
I’m really bad with this, and not unintentionally so. I just don’t feel like being in the kitchen when I’m frying for several minutes at time. You can catch me upstairs reading. But the difference between me, a scholar, and you, a commoner, is that I leave the heat at a perfect, low level when I do this, to avoid fire. Definitely don’t do as I do, but if you’re going to do it anyway, do exactly as I do.
As a precautionary tale, I once lit my kitchen on fire by doing this, so you might say my method has a significant failure rate associated with it. I left wontons in a pot of canola oil on an electric stove for a bit. When I returned to the kitchen to see how nice and golden they got, I found the entire stovetop and half of my counter coated in a thin, flaming layer of grease, with the blaze rising up and licking the microwave.
After killing the heat, I proceeded to physically tussle with the fire, smothering it section by section under the lid of a pot while trying to blow it out by fanning with a towel. Surprisingly, the fanning worked well, and I was able to get the fire to die down. I might not recommend the fanning again, because it was a wonder that it didn’t spread the oil (and thus, the fire) around. I used no water until the oil had cooled significantly, and neither should you. At best, it will spatter, and at worst, it will cause a small fireball and spread the oil around.
To safely adjust the heat of a pan and prevent a fire before it ignites, you should turn the heat down until the oil stops simmering, then bring it backup slowly. You need to be careful to avoid spattering during this stage. Sometimes removing the oil from heat stops it from bubbling up, but other times, the oil has already gotten too hot, and removing it from the element could make it boil pretty furiously from its own heat. Remember that the vapor from the boiling oil is highly flammable. With pot holders or towels draped on my arms, I usually turn the heat off and back up to let the oil do what it wants to do.
If you do end up with a fire, the advice is similar: try to reduce the heat on the stove, cover the fire if possible, open a window, and stand back. Use a fire extinguisher if one is handy, as long as it is rated for grease fires. I’m told that you can use baking soda, which is non-combustible, to smother the flames, or even milk. Oil is partially soluble in milk, so I could see how this would splatter less than water, but I would be cautious about pouring any water-based liquid into hot oil, just as a matter of course. If it becomes unsafe to stand in the room with the pan fire, whether due to smoke or heat, exit the house immediately and call the fire department.
What is a BLEVE?
Pan fires can be bad, and if left unattended, they can certainly bring your house down. However,they are nothing – absolutely nothing – compared to the ominous BLEVE: Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion. If that sounds complicated, imagine a twelve-foot tall pillar of flames with a diameter of two or three feet, and that will get the idea across.
You might be wondering what one could possibly do to create something like this. Scientifically speaking, it requires that you ignite an expanding cloud of flammable vapor, which is one step past a pan flash. In concrete terms, we are talking about a frozen turkey.
It’s not necessarily the frozen side of things that creates the problems, but it is the water. When you throw water into a heated fryer, it expands and vaporizes, splashing and releasing volatile fumes from the hot oil. Enough boiling will create a plume of expanding vapor above the fryer before the oil boils over. As we mentioned above, all it takes from there is a spark or a drop of oil hitting flames – like the heating element underneath the fryer. Boom. The frozen turkey certainly has enough water in it to cause this. Spiking the bird into the pot will ensure it.
How Not To Explode
To avoid a BLEVE, you just need to remove one of these things from the equation: boiling oil, or a spark. The best way to ensure that is just to follow a careful procedure when you fry. Develop a technique (or a protocol, to be dramatic) and follow it closely. That alone will cut down on mistakes and risk.
To head it off from the start, you can keep the oil from getting too hot, which will soothe the seething boil and reduce the vapor being produced by the fryer. No fumes, no fire. However, you still need the thing to get hot enough to fry the turkey, so you can’t just turn it down and hope for the best.
To add a level of certainty, you can work to prevent the fryer from boiling over and dripping down the sides of the fryer vessel. Don’t overfill with oil, and be sure to leave room for the oil level to rise when the turkey is added, as well as room so that the bubbles don’t rise above the edge of the fryer when it starts boiling. The fumes won’t ignite unless the flame gets to the oil.
Finally, you can (and should) also turn off the heat source for the fryer once the turkey is ready to be dropped in. This means that even if the fryer does boil over, the oil will not contact a direct flame, and it will not explode.
You Forgot, Didn’t You?
Did you forget?
I know you did. You forgot.
The oven. You forgot to turn off the oven. I’m not telling a story; we’re talking about this very moment. You currently have forgotten to turn off the oven. Go, right now. Check it.
It was on, right? You can thank me later. If it wasn’t on, you can still thank me later, because I’m helping condition you to a new habit of preventing fires. Besides grease fires, the most likely cause of a kitchen fire is a faulty oven. Don’t tempt fate. Turn your oven off when you’re finished with it. I won’t be there to remind you next time.
Okay, wow. I never expected to write so much about oil boiling. Now that your chemistry education is over… just kidding, it’s not over. We’re going to move on to chimney fires, which can be very dangerous. Chimney fires are primarily caused by, you guessed it, chemical compounds.
What you didn’t guess, unless you’re well-read, or a chimney sweep, is that the compounds form a substance called creosote. Creosote is a waxy combination of phenols and other byproducts of combustion. Phenols are, well, a lot of different things, but the important part for us is that they can be flammable, depending on the conditions, and they decompose into carbon monoxide.
Because of this, if you allow flames to touch excessive creosote deposits in your chimney, you may have a chimney fire on your hands. Chimney fires can actually be relatively harmless, but they carry huge risk.
The fire itself expels burning material from the top of the chimney, which can light nearby structures or debris. The fire inside the higher portions of the chimney can overheat the brick, causing them to radiate heat into the house. Support beams and other parts of the house can eventually ignite, if the fire is intense enough. As well, as I said, the phenol in the creosote starts to decompose into carbon monoxide, which disperses evenly inside the chimney, as well as inside the home, through the fireplace.
What’s so dangerous about this is that carbon monoxide poisoning does not trigger the same suffocating sensation that carbon dioxide does, so you may not even notice problems until your awareness is impaired by fumes. If you see or smell excessive smoke coming from your fireplace, you should carefully check that your flue is open, and if it is, consider contacting the fire department.
What Causes Chimney Fires
A chimney fire can be set off by anything that overheats the chimney or allows flames to rise into the chimney itself. You can head off the whole issue by hiring a chimney sweep, but at some point, you’re going to have to get your chimney dirty if you want to use the fireplace.
Burning pine needles can seem like a really efficient way to kindle a fire, or to bring one back to life, but it’s not worth it. The needles can flare up and the flames will sometimes rise past the flue. If you burn pine branches, that’s even more likely. You also should never burn laminated paper or paper with dyes in them, like wrapping paper. They can flare up, as well, and they may release smoke containing toxic metals or other impurities.
The third kind of major holiday fire I want to discuss is the world-famous Christmas tree fire. Despite the name recognition, these are very uncommon, apparently averaging about 200 a year in the United States. However, they tend to be serious, with Christmas tree fires more often ending in a death.
I have heard of people actually stuffing their tree into the fireplace and lighting it to try to dispose of it. That seems like a bad way to dispose of a tree and a good way to immediately start a fire that could destroy your home. This should be a no-brainer after everything we just went over about pine needles.
Even outside, a Christmas tree is full of pine oil, and it will jump into flames once it gets a bit dry. That makes sense evolutionarily, since pine forest fires have been needed to fertilize soil for millions of years. Don’t win a Darwin award over it. Let the guys with the big trucks take the tree away; don’t burn it.
What If I Don’t Burn It On Purpose?
Good question. If you don’t burn your tree on purpose, you’re still pretty much cooked. Get out of the house and call the fire department. You should stand a few hundred feet from the building, if possible. Your only option is prevention for such an intense blaze.
The simplest advice I can give, based on something that has caused tree fires for hundreds of years, is that candles do not belong on or near pine trees. In the modern era, few people would be tempted to do something like this, but the practice was once somewhat common. Fires caused by candles are really common, even outside the context of Christmas trees.
Tinsel was actually primarily popularized as a way to avoid using old-time incandescent lights or candles on Christmas trees. You can do the same, if you happen to find tinsel to be an appropriate replacement. Even light strings can create enough heat to ignite a tree, if left on long enough. Always turn your lights off before going to bed, or put them on a timer, if you’re forgetful.
Nowadays, lights are a lot more efficient, and you can often just rely on the fact that less heat is produced by modern bulbs. Use LEDs for the coolest lighting option. They produce very little heat compared to the amount of light they give off.
Heat and fans will only make your tree more flammable, by drawing moisture out of the needles. Be sure to water your tree daily, and consider making a change to your house’s heating. You can lower the temperature overall to slow the drying, or just close vents near the tree so that there’s not a constant flow of warm air to carry away water vapor.
Setting up lights is the last place where you can run into trouble. Check your light bulbs for defects before you put them up. You should then plug them in and check for burned out or broken bulbs, just so your house doesn’t look stupid. Don’t overload your outlets or chain together more than three strings (depending on the safety information for the individual product) of lights.
Potpourri (or Incense, I guess, if we’re on the subject of burning things)
Finally, I have some oddballs for you. This is the bedroom fire part that I mentioned earlier. Bedroom fires are also an extremely common event, yearlong. There are a few factors that can make this worse during the holidays. For example, the candles I mentioned earlier will often set fire to sheets, or a lampshade, if left unattended.
Space heaters are another issue. Depending on your building, they may violate fire code, and after a few hours, they can become obscenely hot. Choose a space heater that uses a ceramic or quartz element, and find one with a safety shutoff that will kill the power at high temperatures.
The last, but most vital, bedroom fire safety tip is never, under any circumstances, to smoke your corncob pipe in bed. It’s liable to produce hot ashes while you puff it, and if you fall asleep next to Ma in her kerchief, there might soon be no roof left for reindeer to land on.
Moving on, brush fires and firework-related fires (and firework-related brush fires) are the biggest causes of outdoor home fires. In New Jersey, there is a ban on fireworks sales, and many towns have noise and nuisance ordinances that forbid enormous explosions – pesky bureaucrats – so my preferred method of avoiding firework accidents is to avoid fireworks. Consider: this is coming from the guy who just said he’s willing to put a match in a cup of diesel fuel. If you’re going to use fireworks, do it legally in an open space, far from trees or any flammable debris.
Similarly, my preferred methods of avoiding brush fires are to avoid burning trash and to keep my lawn trimmings in the street by the curb where they can’t hurt anybody. In some areas, I know it’s preferable or even necessary to burn trash, so if you’re going to go that route, again: do it safely. You should be an expert at fire safety if you’re burning trash at your house regularly. If you’re not, get a neighbor to help you.
Now that I’m done offending Middle America with my cosmopolitan perspective on trash disposal, I think I’m finished here. You should be well-versed in the dangers that come around with the holidays, and I expect that you will be able to face any flame or fire that dares to ignite in your home.