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Fighting fire with good sense

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A third of all house fires start where one has already been started on purpose — at the kitchen stove. According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) there are more than 150,000, causing hundreds of fatalities, thousands of injuries, and almost a billion dollars in property loss a year. Some fire officials say the number of kitchen fires is actually about 10 times higher, and that many go unreported.

The main cause is unattended cooking. The main combustibles are oil, fat and grease. The cook may be out of the room only a minute or two, but that's often enough for spitting grease to ignite, spread flames to a pan and create a small inferno that quickly envelopes the stovetop and nearby cabinets.

Most safety experts recommend that when a fire breaks out at home you should leave the house and call the fire department. But faced with the possibility of the house going up in smoke before the fire department arrives, people often fight a fire instead of leaving. Particularly with a small, stovetop fire, that often may seem like a reasonable choice — if you fight it the right way, for instance, with a fully-charged ABC-rated fire extinguisher that works against any fire source.

But a study by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers and the National Association of State Fire Marshals found that about half the people who fight a kitchen fire make potentially fatal errors. They try to extinguish a grease fire with water, which only spreads it. They try to douse a stovetop blaze with flour, which only adds fuel to the flames.

The USFA offers a practical slogan that can help you make the right decision about fighting a stovetop blaze: When in doubt, just get out. Everyone can recognize that moment. You use a fire extinguisher. It seems to be putting out the blaze. But the pressure is falling and the flames are still there. Suddenly, you have the sense that you're losing control of the situation. That's when the slogan should kick in. The USFA also suggests several tips if you decide to fight a kitchen fire.

*First be sure others are getting out and that you have a clear path to an exit.

*For a pan fire, keep an oven mitt and a lid nearby. If a small grease fire starts, put on the mitt and smother the flames by sliding on the lid. Turn off the burner, but don't move the pan. To keep the fire from restarting, leave the lid on until the pan cools.

*For an oven fire, turn off the heat and keep the door closed to prevent flames from burning you or your clothing.

*For a microwave fire, turn off the appliance, unplug it if you can safely reach the outlet and don't open the door until the fire is completely out.

Safety reminders

Many mistakes are easy to avoid, mainly by staying near the stove — or at least in the kitchen — while frying, grilling or broiling. Other safety tips may seem obvious, but all are recommended by the USFA based on years of examining the causes of kitchen fires.

*Don't leave potholders, paper towels, wooden utensils, food packaging or other combustibles on the stovetop.

*Don't leave burners on for warming or reheating if you won't be in the kitchen.

*Don't leave small appliances on the stove with electrical cords that can droop over the edge, become snagged, or pulled on by children.

*Use a timer to remind you that something is cooking, and if you leave the kitchen, even a short period of time, turn off the stove.

*Keep the stovetop, burners and oven clean.

*Keep pets off nearby countertops to prevent them from knocking anything onto the burner.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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