House fires are dangerous no matter when they happen, but they definitely become more common as the temperature dips. According to the American Red Cross, house fires increase between the fall and winter months with peaks in December and January, and the U.S. Fire Administration estimates that about 890 people die in winter house fires each year. These stats are scary, but there’s a lot you can do to keep yourself safe.
Home fires in the winter can typically be attributed to factors such as candles, cooking, Christmas trees, other holiday decorations, and heating units like space heaters, Lieutenant Michael Kozo, who works in the Fire Department of New York’s fire safety education unit, tells SELF.
Not to mention that because of the way modern homes are built, house fires might be more dangerous now than they were, say, 20 years ago, Lorraine Carli, vice president of outreach and advocacy for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), tells SELF.
Many items in modern homes are made of synthetic materials, Carli explains: “If they catch fire, they burn very quickly, so you would have much less time to escape.” Fire safety experts used to tell people they had about seven to 10 minutes to flee a burning home, Carli says. Today, she notes, you could have as little as two minutes to get out of a house that’s caught fire.
All of that means that it’s important to know how to prevent these fires from happening in the first place. Here are a few tips for staying safe.
1. Make sure you have working smoke alarms.
“The smoke alarm is definitely the number one thing we promote; we can’t overemphasize the importance of having one,” Kozo says. “It’s the first thing that’s going to let you know that there’s a fire.”
The vast majority of fires happen in homes that either have no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms, Carli explains. To be exact, nearly three out of five home fire deaths between 2012 and 2016 occurred in homes with no smoke alarms or with smoke alarms that didn’t work, according to a 2019 report from the NFPA. That’s why the NFPA recommends testing your smoke alarms at least once a month, replacing the batteries once a year (or when the alarm “chirps” to tell you the battery is low), and replacing any smoke alarm that’s more than 10 years old. Additionally, Carli recommends having a smoke alarm on every level of your house if you live somewhere that has more than one story.
If your smoke alarms double as carbon monoxide detectors, you’re also protected against another safety threat in your home. If they don’t, you should install carbon monoxide detectors near every sleeping area of your house and check them regularly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says.
2. Don’t keep anything within three feet of your space heater, and turn it off before you go to bed.
It’s a given that you want to stay warm during cold winter months, but Kozo says you should exercise some caution when using space heaters. “A lot of people think you can buy one, turn it on, and off we go, but it’s really not that simple,” he says.
Heating is the second leading cause of U.S. home fires, injuries, and deaths, the NFPA says. These fires can spark when a heater is too close to combustible materials or when the device malfunctions mechanically or electrically, leading to potentially lethal consequences. Every year from 2012 to 2016, U.S. fire departments attended to an average of 52,050 fires due to heating equipment, according to a report from the NFPA. Space heaters accounted for 86 percent of the deaths in these incidents.
To stay safe, you should keep a clear area of at least three feet around the space heater at all times, the NFPA says, and always turn it off before you go to bed.
“We recommend that you turn it on and warm up the room you want to sleep in while you’re still awake, and once you go to sleep, you should be shutting it off,” Kozo says. “You shouldn’t be running it all night long.”
3. Don’t leave cooking unattended.
As Carli explains, cooking is one of the leading causes of home fires in general, not just during the winter. As such, she advises people to be extra careful when they’re cooking anything on the stove.
“Stay in the kitchen; pay attention to what you’re cooking,” she says. “Don’t have anything close to the cooktop, whether that’s food wrapping, potholders, [or] dish towels.”
Another kitchen-related tip? Definitely don’t use your oven as a source of heat. Kozo says it could easily cause carbon monoxide to build up in your house.
4. Clean out your dryer’s lint trap.
According to the NFPA, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 15,970 home fires involving washing and drying machines per year from 2010 to 2014. Dryers were at fault for a whopping 92 percent of those fires, and one-third of those fires happened because of a failure to clean the machine. (The other dryer and washer fires were mainly due to mechanical and electrical malfunctions.)
To avoid these fires, make sure you always use a lint filter in your dryer, clean the filter before and after each load of laundry, and keep the area around your dryer clear of things that can catch fire, like boxes, cleaning supplies, and clothing.
5. Avoid using extension cords with anything that produces heat or cool air.
Kozo says that any item that heats or cools the room, like a space heater or air conditioner, should be plugged directly into the wall. That also goes for things like toaster ovens, microwaves, or refrigerators. (And only one of this type of object should be plugged into an outlet at a time, the NFPA says.)
“Those items shouldn’t be plugged into an extension cord because they draw too much power, and the extension cord can’t handle that,” Kozo says. “[Plugging them in the wall] can prevent electrical fires.”
As convenient as extension cords may seem, you really should be careful with how you use them. In fact, the NFPA notes that you’re only supposed to rely on extension cords as temporary stopgaps for your electricity needs. If you feel like you need one long-term, the NFPA recommends asking an electrician to install more outlets in your home.
6. Don’t leave candles unattended or within a foot of anything flammable.
Candles are pretty but also pretty hazardous. They started 36 percent of decoration-related home fires between 2011 and 2015, according to an NFPA report.
Kozo says the FDNY recommends flameless candles whenever possible but understands that this isn’t always an option, especially for religious observances that may require ceremonial use of wax candles. Even if not for religious reasons, sometimes you just want the comfy vibes that come with using an actual candle. That’s fine as long as you implement some simple safety tips.
“You just want to practice some precautions with a flame candle,” Kozo says. “You should extinguish it once it’s burning within two inches from the holder. If it burns all the way down, the holder can get hot and catch fire.” The NFPA also recommends keeping candles at least one foot away from anything that can catch fire, although Kozo bumps that number up to four feet if you’re into exercising the utmost caution.
You should also put out any flames when you leave a room and before you go to sleep. Sure, a candle might burn out on its own and leave you entirely safe, but it only takes one time where it doesn’t for things to go wrong. As they say, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
7. If you have a fireplace, dispose of the ashes safely.
A fireplace is probably one of the only places in your home where you’d want to have a fire going, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t safety measures to keep in mind.
To avoid chimney fires, the NFPA advises that you should have a qualified professional inspect your chimney and vents every year. You should also store cooled ashes from the fireplace in a tightly covered metal container and keep the container outside, at least 10 feet away from your house and any other buildings.
Beyond that, make sure the area around the fireplace is cleared of anything that might catch flame, and don’t leave a lit fireplace unattended. Yes, “unattended” includes falling asleep, no matter how tempting it is to doze off in front of those cozy flames.