House Fire Prevention and Safety Tips to Help Keep Your Home Safe

Help prevent a house fire by following these crucial safety tips.

A house fire is a homeowner's worst nightmare and, in many cases, is entirely preventable. Seasonal heating—such as fireplaces, space heaters, and furnaces—are responsible for many, yet house fires caused by cooking, candles, and indoor smoking can occur year round. To help prevent a devastating fire in your home, let's remind you of some important guidelines for keeping your home and family safe.

Install Fire Extinguishers

A homeowner's use of a portable fire extinguisher can prevent a wastebasket fire from becoming a devastating house fire, but their use has its limits. They should only be used when the fire is confined to a small area, everyone has exited the house, the fire department has been called (or is being called), and the room is not filled with smoke.

While fire extinguishers aren't considered mandatory inside most residences, they're certainly a good idea. The places where it makes sense to keep one are in the kitchen, near sources of heat (fireplace or space heater), on each floor of your home, in the garage, and in the bedrooms (because most house fires occur at night).

For instructions on how to use your fire extinguisher, consult the label on each unit and become familiar with operating them before a fire occurs. To quickly remember the steps in the heat of the moment, think of the word PASS:

  • Pull the pin.
  • Aim low.
  • Squeeze the lever.
  • Sweep the nozzle from side to side.

Test Your Smoke Detectors

How many smoke alarms do you need? That depends on the size and layout of your home. At a minimum, you need an alarm on every floor of your home, one in each bedroom, and one outside of each sleeping area. Special alarms with strobe lights and bed shakers are available for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

While each alarm brand is different, in general, pressing the "test" button for a few seconds emits the loud, familiar siren, but check the manual for specific testing instructions. If the alarm fails to sound, or you haven't changed the batteries in six months, replace them now with new batteries. Once installed, test the alarm again to ensure it works.

Did you know smoke detectors have an expiration date? Most have a lifespan of only eight to 10 years, so check your alarm's manual. Past that date, replace your detector even if it seems to be working.

Light Candles Safely

While soft candlelight can make a room so much cozier, be sure to follow a few safety precautions. "Keep the candle away from things that can catch fire. This includes curtains, lamp shades, bookshelves, and papers," says Kathy LaVanier, spokesperson for the National Candle Association and CEO of Renegade Candle Company.

Even if the candle is in a glass or metal container, set it on a ceramic plate or another fireproof holder, rather than directly on furniture. Most importantly, never leave a burning candle unattended, and don't fall asleep with a candle burning.

One more thing: A candle wick trimmer isn't just a quaint, old-fashioned home accessory. Trimming your candle wicks to ¼-inch helps you prevent a house fire, reduce smoke, and extend the life of those expensive scented candles. It's a win-win-win.

Prevent Cooking Fires

Cooking is a leading cause of home fires and fire injuries, but a few safety measures can help you avoid a disaster:

  • Always stay in the kitchen when you're frying, grilling, boiling, or broiling food.
  • Avoid cooking or baking when you're really exhausted and likely to fall asleep.
  • Take a look around your kitchen and move anything flammable—like cookbooks, dishtowels, and potholders—away from the stovetop.

Avoid Space Heater and Fireplace Fires

To prevent winter house fires, ensure anything flammable—fabrics, wooden furniture, or papers—are at least three feet away from your fireplace, space heater, or stove. "Turn off heaters and make sure fireplace embers are extinguished before leaving the room," says Jennifer Schallmoser, media relations coordinator at the National Safety Council.

"If you must use a space heater, place it on a level, nonflammable surface, like ceramic tile, not on a rug or carpet," Schallmoser advises. When shopping for space heaters, look for ones with tip-over protection that automatically shut off when they're knocked over.

Cleaning out your fireplace regularly can also help avoid a house fire and prevent excessive smoke. It's a good idea to get your chimney inspected once per year, and consult an expert to find out if cleaning or repairs are necessary.

Stop Smoking Fires

Smoking materials pose another leading cause of fire deaths, so this one's easy: Institute a "no smoking in the house" policy, recommends Schallmoser. Relegate smoking to outside only, make sure to extinguish cigarettes completely, and keep a sturdy ashtray or bucket of sand in an location that's handy for outdoor smokers.

If a no-smoking policy isn't practical at your home, ensure family members and guests smoke only when alert, and that they don't smoke if taking medicine or getting sleepy. And ensure no one smokes near anyone who uses medical oxygen. There is no safe way to smoke when oxygen is in use because, if a fire starts, that oxygen causes it to burn hotter and faster.

Clean Your Dryer Vent

While houses are susceptible to dryer-vent fires year round, their frequency peaks in winter. "People tend to wear more clothing during the winter, increasing the amount of lint pulled through the lint screen and into the dryer," explains Scott Thomas, director of systems at Dryer Vent Wizard. "More clothing and frequent clothing changes, especially if you have small children in the home, also means you're doing laundry more often."

Lint is highly flammable, and when it builds up in hot-enough temperatures, it can spark a fire. Thomas recommends having your dryer vent cleaned and inspected annually. "If a dryer vent is blocked with snow and ice, the heat and lint produced by a dryer will have nowhere to escape," he says.

After each snowstorm, check where the dryer vents to the outside—typically at the side of the house or through the roof—and make sure it's not blocked with snow or ice. "You should see the vent operating and the flaps opening when the dryer is pushing out warm air," Thomas adds.

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