Be Prepared, Be Smart, Be Ready

fireplace safety

To help prevent home fires related to fireplaces, use a metal or glass screen to keep sparks from setting nearby carpets or furniture aflame. Also keep kindling, paper and decor items well away from fireplaces. Photo courtesy U.S. Fire Administration, FEMA.

Gatlinburg’s devastating November fire made everyone keenly aware of how quickly fire can spread and consume a home. While wildfire is not a common occurrence in Tennessee, did you know that the Volunteer State is ranked sixth in the nation in the number of fire fatalities?

According to the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), for every 100 structure fires, one person dies.

Martha Keel, professor and environmental health and housing specialist with University of Tennessee Extension, stresses that those at greatest risk of dying in a house fire include children under the age of four and older adults. Adults aged 85 and over suffer four times the rate of fire deaths.

Keel notes that anyone can be a victim of a home fire; however, deaths and injuries can be greatly reduced if proper planning and actions are taken ahead of time. Some of the preparations include:

• Create and practice a fire escape plan twice a year. Identify two ways out of every room, even if one is a window. If a collapsible ladder is needed, make sure it is certified by a recognized laboratory, such as UL. Check to make sure all windows and screens can be removed easily. Rehearse the fire escape plan, practicing escape routes in the darkness or with closed eyes. Be certain to teach children not to hide from fire fighters.

• Install smoke alarms, both ionization and photoelectric types. Dual sensor smoke alarms are now available. If units are battery operated, test batteries monthly and replace batteries once a year. Include an alarm on every level of the house. The U.S. Fire Administration recommends installing smoke alarms both inside and outside of sleeping areas.

Most home fires occur in the kitchen, while cooking, and are the leading cause of injuries from fire. Common causes of fires at night are carelessly discarded cigarettes, sparks from fireplaces without spark screens or glass doors, and heating appliances left too close to furniture or other combustibles.

The web site is an excellent source of information on fires and their prevention. Some of these are summarized below.

• Remain in the kitchen when the stove is on.
• Wear short, close-fitting or tightly rolled sleeves when cooking.
• Do not cook if you are sleepy, have been drinking alcohol, or have taken medicine that makes you drowsy.
• Keep children away from cooking areas (at least three feet away from cooking appliances).
• Position barbecue grills at least ten feet away from siding, deck railings, eaves, and overhanging branches.

• Smoke outside, and extinguish cigarettes in a can filled with sand.
• Never toss cigarette butts or ashes in the trash.
• Never smoke in a home where oxygen is being used, even if it is turned off.

Electrical and Appliance Safety:
• Frayed wires are a common source of electrical fires. Replace all worn, old or damaged appliance cords immediately, and do not run cords under rugs or furniture.
• Buy electrical products with a recognized seal of approval, such as UL.
• Never force a three-prong plug into a two-slot outlet or extension cord.
• Use extension cords wisely. Never overload extension cords or wall sockets.
• Immediately shut off, then professionally replace, light switches that are hot to the touch and lights that flicker.

Portable Space Heaters:
• Keep combustible objects at least three feet away from portable heating devices.
• Buy only heaters with a recognized seal of approval, such as UL.
• Use only portable heaters that have a thermostat control and will switch off automatically if the heater falls over.
• Always use crystal clear K-1 kerosene in kerosene heaters, being careful not to overfill. Use the heater in a well-ventilated room. A heater that vents to the outside is the best choice.

Fireplaces and Stoves:
• Inspect and clean woodstove pipes and chimneys annually, and check monthly for damage or obstructions.
• Never burn trash, paper, or green wood.
• Use a fireplace screen heavy enough to stop rolling logs and big enough to cover the entire opening of the fireplace.
• Make sure fire is completely out before leaving the house or going to bed.
• Store cooled ashes in a tightly sealed metal container outside the home.

• Take the mystery out of fire play by teaching children that fire is a tool, not a toy.
• Store matches and lighters out of children’s reach and sight, preferably in a locked cabinet.
• Teach children not to pick up matches or lights they may find. Instead, they should tell an adult immediately.
• Never leave children unattended near operating stoves or burning candles, even for a short time.
• Check under beds and in closets for burned matches, evidence your child may be playing with fire.

Additional Tips:
• Avoid using lighted candles.
• Never use the range or oven to heat your home.
• Replace mattresses made before the 2007 Federal Mattress Flammability Standard.
• Keep combustible and flammable liquids away from heat sources.
• Portable generators should NEVER be used indoors and should only be refueled outdoors or in well ventilated areas.

Keel reminds everyone that fire is fast. “A small flame can catch completely in less than 30 seconds. In just a few minutes, black smoke can fill the house, and the entire structure can be totally engulfed in flames in fewer than ten minutes,” she said. At this time, home design, building techniques and materials are responsible for faster fire movement, shorter escape times, and reduced intervals to structural collapse, as revealed in the UL Analysis of Changing Residential Fire Dynamics study.

Fire is not the only killer, Keel notes. Room temperatures can be 100 degrees at floor level, spiraling to 600 degrees at eye level. Inhaling this super-hot air scorches the lungs. Fire uses up the oxygen needed for human respiration, producing smoke and gases. The highly toxic quality of the gas and smoke are responsible for more deaths than are a fire’s flames.

Cigarette smoking constitutes the number one known cause of fatal structure fires in the United States and Tennessee, but the cause of almost half of fatal fires is undeterminable, according to The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance Fire Fatalities studies. NFPA data also shows that while 96 percent of all homes have at least one smoke alarm, there were no working alarms in 70 percent of Tennessee’s fatal fires.

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Dr. Martha Keel, UT Extension Family and Consumer Sciences,