Picture it: You're sautéing the most sumptuous shrimp in garlic sauce when your skillet, coated with a light film of olive oil, bursts into flickering flames. This scary scenario may sound like a rare occurrence, but according to the National Fire Protection Association, it's anything but. Cooking equipment is the leading cause of home fires—and by a long shot.
"If there was a weekly radio show counting down the causes of fire, cooking would hit the No. 1 spot in the top 10," jokes Steve Huffman, public information officer for the Mobile Fire Department, a southern agency that's seen its fair share of kitchen fires—especially around the holidays, when a deep-fried turkey or two goes up in flames.
"Cooking fires happen on the stove top, oven, microwave, grills, hot plates, deep fryer, and duct exhaust fans, just to name a few," Huffman says. But a whopping 59 percent of kitchen fires start on the stove top, according to NFPA statistics, with ovens coming in a very distant second. "When a [home] fire is dispatched, I can almost always predict that it's a 'pot on the stove' call," says Huffman. "That's how often it happens."
Of course, kitchen fires are caused by a number of things—unattended food, a towel left too close to open flames, keeping the stove on while you step outside. But according to Huffman, the majority of kitchen fires boil down to a single cause: oil burning in a pan.
"Statistically, cooking equipment is blamed for these fires," says Huffman, "but that's not to say that the equipment itself is to blame or it malfunctioned—it's just the heat source. The majority of these fires are caused by human error." Amateur chefs can prevent kitchen fires by never leaving food or flames unattended, and shutting off burners when cooking is done.
But, if despite your best and most vigilant efforts in the kitchen, a fire occurs anyway, we've got you covered. Here's exactly what you should do, in five steps.
1. Don't panic.
Easier said than done, we know. But keeping calm could prevent flames from engulfing your home. "Unless the fire is chasing you around the room, relax," Huffman instructs, "because now is the time to think straight—it's decision time." Ask yourself, do I need to escape, or are the flames small enough to stay behind and fight?
It may sound like a tough call to make, but the decision comes down to some pretty simple logic, Huffman says. Gauge how small or large the fire is. If it's contained to a pan, and you are handy with a fire extinguisher, you might decide to fight the flames. But even in the face of the smallest fires, "we would rather you make your escape to safety rather than attempt extinguish the fire yourself," Huffman says.
No matter what, call 911. "Even if you think you have the fire under control, it's best to let firefighters do an inspection to ensure the fire didn't spread in places you may not be able to see," Huffman explains. "Some departments even have temperature guns that detect heat in the walls where fire can hide and show up at the most inconvenient time—when you're watching that cliffhanger on your favorite TV show or worst yet, when you are asleep."
2. If the fire is small and contained to a pan, deprive it of oxygen.
Whenever you cook, Huffman says it's a smart idea to keep a lid close by, because the easiest and safest way to put out a stove top fire is to put a lid on it—literally.
You should never try to move the pan, even to your sink. "When you attempt to move a pan that has fire in it, you run the risk of spilling it or worse, splattering that hot grease on yourself," explains Huffman. "So often people make this fatal mistake because their thought process is get the fire out of the house or in the sink where there's water—but water and hot grease do not mix." He recalls a kitchen fire in which the resident panicked and tried to move the fiery pan to the back door, where he could toss it out to the yard. But the occupant never made it that far, and instead suffered severe burns.
So that brings us back to your ultimate fire-fighting weapon: a lid. "Simply take the lid, hold it by the handle using it like a shield, and slide it over the top of the pan," Huffman instructs.
Come at the pan in a slight angle, he says, and place it on from front to back. Do not throw a lid on the pan, no matter how scary the flames may be. "You'll probably miss, and splatter and spread the fire," Huffman warns. Then, once the lid is in place, leave it alone. If you pull the lid off too soon, the fire could start again, Huffman says.
Don't have the perfect-fitting lid? Huffman says a cookie sheet or pizza pan will do the trick, as long as whatever you're using is larger than the pan you're covering. "The fit may not be quite as tight as the lid that goes to that pan, but it should serve the purpose of blocking the oxygen from reaching the contents," he explains.
3. Kill the heat source.
Flames are no longer erupting from your pan, but it's still hot, hot, hot. So your next move is to help cool it down by cutting the source of heat. If you can do it safely, turn the knob controlling the burner, Huffman says. But if you would have to extend your arm over the pan to reach the knob, leave it for the fire department.
"Whether you have an electric or gas stove will determine how quickly the pan will begin to cool off," Huffman says. "When you turn off a gas burner, the flame goes out immediately and the cooling begins. But with electric burners, it takes a little longer for the coils to cool."
4. Document the damage.
Now that the fire's out—whether by your own heroic efforts, or thanks to the fire department's help—you may think the job is done. Think again.
First, you'll want to photograph any damage that occurred as a result of the fire. Try to "be as thorough as possible with your photo documentation," Huffman says. "You don't need a fancy camera—just use your smart phone camera if you have one." Then write down what happened, in as much detail as possible. Do it quickly: "The longer you wait," says Huffman, the more difficult it will be to recall these details."
Now it's time to contact your insurance company. They'll want copies of the images, those details you wrote down, and eventually, the official fire report from the fire department. "They will most likely send an adjuster to assess the damage and give you advice on what to do next," says Huffman. You may be able to do the cleanup yourself, but for larger fires, your insurer will send a cleanup contractor to repair the damage. You may just need to stay in a hotel—or your parents' basement, Huffman jokes—until the repairs are completed.
5. Take steps to make sure it doesn't happen again.
We hope you'll never have to live through another kitchen fire. But just in case, you should set up your kitchen so you're ready to fight future flames. Invest in an ABC multipurpose fire extinguisher, and practice how to use it. If you don't learn how to properly use it, you could actually make a fire worse, Huffman says. And while "there are directions on the side of the extinguisher, it's not a good time to read them when you already have a fire in your kitchen," he points out.
The easiest way to use a fire extinguisher is the PASS method, which stands for pull, aim, squeeze, and sweep. You'll pull the pin from the extinguisher; aim its nozzle low, toward the base of the flames; squeeze the handle to release the spray; and sweep the spray in a side-to-side motion, Huffman says. "You should be approximately 10 feet away from the fire, and always keep your exit behind you," he says. You can also check with your local fire department to see if it offers fire extinguisher classes. Many do—for free.
It's also a good idea to do a mini kitchen remodel, moving anything flammable—towels, papers, books, curtains, oven mitts, or wood utensils—as far away from stove tops, ovens, and other heat sources as possible, Huffman says. And commit to never leaving another pan unattended, whether that means asking a partner or friend to watch the pan when you step into the bathroom or committing to never cooking when you're too tired. "What happens is you fall asleep and a fire ensues," Huffman says. "You may or may not wake up to discover the fire and make your escape—but the odds are heavily against you."