“The guys in the firehouse and I have this joke about how blazes are always started by mice with matches,” says Kevin Kleinworth, who oversees 11 stations and nearly 19,000 square miles of land as Deputy Fire Chief for Nye County, Nevada. “Meaning that homeowners are always surprised to learn a fire was caused by something they did. Many people don’t realize that all it takes is one little spark. There’s a dangerous ‘it can’t happen to me’ attitude.” Kleinworth calls on 25 years of experience to outline the six most prevalent causes of house fires.
6. Matches and lighters
“Kids are going to be curious about fire,” says Kleinworth. “I have three kids and everyone wants to play with matches.” Playing with fire results in as many as 15,000 fires -- and 1,000 deaths -- a year.
Kleinworth has a simple policy on candles: “Not in my house,” he says. Keep batteries in flashlights at all times to eliminate the need for using candles during a power outage.
4. Electrical cords
“People have a tendency to overload outlets, especially at Christmastime,” says Kleinworth. But the biggest culprit here is the family pet. “House cats cause a lot of fires,” he says. “They love to chew on wires, especially hidden ones.”
In the U.S., as many as 900 people die each year from fires caused by smoking. “My 90-year-old grandmother lives next door to a woman who’s burnt her house down three times after going to bed with a cigarette,” says Kleinworth. “That’s the most tragic scenario: Your mistake makes innocent victims out of your neighbors.”
2. Heat sources
In two out of three cases, space heaters are the culprits, but fires related to heat sources can also start in fireplaces, wood stoves and even lamps if there are newspapers, magazines, piles of clothing, carelessly hung curtains or other combustible materials nearby. “Most houses where fires were started by a heat source are very cluttered,” says Kleinworth. “Poor housekeeping is most definitely a hazard.”
“A few years ago, I was cooking in a baggy shirt and it caught on fire,” says Kleinworth. “Now that was embarrassing. I, of all people, should know better!” Many adults start dinner and then walk away or try to do too many things at once. Grease fires can be particularly scary: “People will try to grab the pan to get it outside, not anticipating how hot it is,” he says. “So then they drop the pan, creating a much bigger fire almost instantly.”