House on Fire
Author: Michael Vogel
Household fires are most often caused by electrical problems or because of human error. When it happens, you have to be extremely careful.
How long does it take for groceries placed on the stove to catch fire when a burner has been left on accidentally? Half a minute? One minute? Five minutes? In fact, smoke develops and the shopping bag catches fire after only a few seconds. Four minutes later, it is ablaze. Six minutes later, the flames have spread to the extractor hood and the fitted furniture. Not much later, the entire kitchen is a sea of flames. If you don’t believe it, the Institute for Loss Prevention and Damage Research (IFS) has filmed the development of a kitchen fire.
The IFS, an institution of public insurers, publishes the annual “Fire Cause Statistics”. It is based on investigations of fires that have caused considerable damage in and on buildings. While the statistics are not representative of the overall damage situation, they are certainly informative when it comes to fire causes. Groceries left on the stove are included in the “human error” section of these statistics, which was the cause of a quarter of fires in 2022. It is the second most common category. It also includes cigarettes that have not been properly put out, pans with burning oil on the stove, and also sheesha charcoal lighters, some models of which are relatively easy to turn on unintentionally – even if they’re standing unused next to a stack of papers.
Electrical malfunctions are the number one fire trigger
However, according to the IFS, household fires are most frequently attributable to problems with electricity (28 percent). The main culprits are household appliances, especially refrigerators and freezers, followed by clothes dryers. One such candidate is the old refrigerator, which, after its long career in the kitchen, makes its way down to the drinks storage in the basement. With age-related wear and tear, the risk of an electrical malfunction increases.
Power strips also contribute highly to the “electricity” category. They are only designed for a certain power output, often 3,500 watts. A hair dryer alone can have a power output of 2,000 watts. If several large electrical consumers are connected to the same power strip, or especially if several power strips are used in succession, they become hot. A little bit of dust on the power strip can be enough to cause a smoldering fire. So it does not always have to be a technical defect.
If it does happen, the people in the house cannot afford to make any more mistakes. Which is not easy, especially because there are still many misconceptions around household fires, as Lars Inderthal knows. He is responsible for fire protection in the electrical and building services engineering department at DEKRA. In an honorary capacity, Inderthal is a member of the Joint Committee on Fire Prevention Education and Fire Fighting of the German Fire Brigades Association. “Many people think that flames are the main problem in a household fire, not the smoke,” he says. “But in fact, this smoke contains many toxic substances, especially carbon monoxide. A few lungfuls of it will cause unconsciousness or death.” Most victims of apartment fires die not because of the flames but from smoke inhalation. It is no coincidence that smoke alarms are now mandatory in Germany to prevent people from being surprised in their sleep. “You can’t protect yourself from smoke by putting a handkerchief over your mouth and nose, either,” Inderthal continued. “That might keep out some soot, but not the gases.”
Furthermore, fire extinguishers or fire blankets sometimes suggest unfounded safety. “With a fire extinguisher, I can put out a fire in the first few seconds after it starts. However, after just one minute, the smoke may have spread so much that you should have left the room a long time ago,” says Inderthal. He also advises against using fire blankets in the kitchen to extinguish grease fires. It is impossible to seal the source of the fire well enough with a fire blanket so that the flames are completely smothered. “The only helpful measure is to cover the burning oil in the pan or pot with a suitable lid and push the pot or pan off the hot stove top.” The expert advises against lifting the lid to see if the fire has gone out: “This can lead to an explosive ignition of the gases that may have developed.”
Calling the fire department is a must
Anyone who has successfully extinguished a fire in their home should still call the fire department. “Only the fire department can ensure that reignition does not occur, and only they can measure whether deposits from the smoke have made a room or even the entire apartment uninhabitable,” says Inderthal. “In that case, professionals must first remove all debris to avoid long-term and serious health damage.” In Germany, worries about having to pay for a firefighting operation are unfounded. “Even in the case of a fire that is only suspected or has already been extinguished, the general public always bears the costs,” Inderthal reassures.
Incidentally, there are no uniform and complete statistics on the number of fire victims for Germany or for Europe, let alone specific figures on victims of household fires. The German Federal Statistical Office puts the number of fatalities due to “exposure to smoke, fire, and flames” at 321 in 2021. They don’t show how many of them died in household fires. The European Fire Safety Alliance – an association of professionals that aims to reduce fire dangers – cites a figure of “more than 5,000 people” dying each year in Europe from household fires.
Overall, however, the number of fatalities from household fires has been declining over the past decades, at least in Germany, largely due to modern electrical appliances and heating systems. That is good news. Nevertheless, every death caused by a household fire is one too many.
The three most important measures to prevent household fires
- Use tested electrical equipment according to the manufacturer’s specifications, including power strips. Unplug appliances such as kettles, hair dryers, or fan heaters when not in use.
- Do not leave the stove unattended when cooking. Do not use the stove as counter space.
- Extinguish burning candles when leaving the room for an extended period of time.
The three most important behavioral measures when there is a fire in the house
- Leave the burning room or apartment immediately. Close the door from the outside, do not lock it.
- If there is a fire in another apartment in an apartment building and the escape route is smoky, stay in your own apartment and draw attention to yourself at the window when the fire department arrives. This is safer.
- Dial the emergency number 112.