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5 of the Biggest Causes of Residential Fires and How to Prevent Them

Written by Charlotte Granville

Published on February 8, 2023


5 of the Biggest Causes of Residential Fires and How to Prevent Them

We reveal some of the main causes of residential fires, as well as tips to reduce the risks and additions to make to your home in order to maximize safety.

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According to U.S. Fire Administration data, an average of over 372,000 residential fires are recorded each year, causing serious damage to homes and endangering the lives of residents across the country. With 75% of these residential fires stemming from either daily household activities or essential home features, it’s important for homeowners to be aware of the risks and take preventative measures in order to maximize their safety. 

Not only is a home fire devastating for everyone involved, but it can also have a serious financial impact on homeowners, with fire damage restoration costs running up to $40,000 on average. With home fire awareness being so crucial, we share 5 of the leading causes of residential fires and top tips to avoid them. 

The Main Causes of Residential Fires

To illustrate the impact of the residential fires in the U.S., we analyzed the data from the U.S. Fire Administration which shows the leading causes of residential fires between 2011 and 2020. This data was pulled from the USFA’s National Fire Incident Reporting System.

This graphic visualizes both the main causes of residential fires in the U.S. between 2011 and 2020. The most recent data shows that cooking is the most common cause of residential fires, accounting for over half of the total incidents recorded in 2020. Fires caused by heating systems were the second most common incident, accounting for 11% of the 372,000 fires recorded that year. Electrical malfunctions and appliances are another home feature that lead to 6% and 4% of residential fires respectively. Open flames were also accountable for 4% of home fires in 2020. 

These leading causes accounted for over 275,000 fires in the U.S. in 2020 alone, causing a total of $8.6B in losses. Home fires could potentially cost homeowners thousands of dollars worth of repairs, so it’s important to know what steps you can take in order to maximize safety in the home. Below are 5 of the biggest causes of residential fires along with tips for preventing them.

1. Cooking Causes 50% of All Residential Fires

Residential cooking fires have increased by 16% since 2011 and there were a total of 192,600 kitchen fires in 2020 alone. With these types of fires being by far the most common, it’s important to know the causes behind them and how to prevent them. 

The most common mistakes people make in terms of fire risks in the kitchen are leaving food which is cooking unattended, placing combustibles too close to heat sources, and unintentionally switching on appliances or forgetting to turn them off. In order to maximize fire safety in the kitchen, some steps must be taken.

Tips for Preventing Fires in the Kitchen: 

  • Keep the kitchen well-ventilated in order to prevent cooking fumes from building up. 
  • Have a fire extinguisher on hand and make sure you know how to use it
  • Never leave cooking food unattended.
  • Keep flammable items such as dish towels and curtains away from the stove.
  • Avoid wearing loose clothing when cooking to prevent sleeves from catching fire.
  • Keep the cooktop and oven clean to prevent food and grease buildup. 
  • Have a lid close by when cooking on the stove to smother a fire if it starts. 
  • Keep children and pets away from cooking areas to prevent accidents.

2. Heating Is the Second Most Common Cause of Residential Fires

Heating a home is one of the major causes of residential fires in the U.S., accounting for 33,000 incidents in 2020. As you would assume, fires as a result of heating the home usually occur during the colder winter months and can cause significant damage to the home if certain precautions aren’t taken to reduce the risk and the spread of a fire. 

Fires of this nature usually start due to the misuse of space heaters, boilers, furnaces, and fireplaces. The common mistakes that can lead to heating fires include letting lint build up in furnace filters and forgetting to turn off heating systems when leaving the house. Knowing how to reduce the risks of heating fires will maximize safety in the home whilst maintaining a warm temperature throughout the colder months. 

Tips for Preventing Heating Fires: 

  • Keep your heating appliances in good condition and have them repaired immediately when necessary.
  • Make sure flammable items such as curtains and furniture are away from any heating sources. 
  • Keep your vents and chimneys clean and clear of debris.
  • Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions on the usage of your heating equipment.
  • Have any heating equipment inspected by a professional for an average of $300 up to twice a year, especially if your system is old. 
  • Educate all members of the household about how to use the heating equipment correctly.

3. Electrical Malfunctions Have Resulted in 23,400 Fires in a Decade

Residential fires caused by electrical malfunctions may have decreased by 13% over the past decade, but they are still one of the most common causes and can be avoided. An electrical malfunction or appliance fire can start with electrical wires or devices producing sparks that can ignite nearby combustibles such as wood or plastic.

These fires can occur due to various reasons such as overloaded circuits, improper use of extension cords, and outdated wiring. It’s important to consider an electrical fire when using electronic devices and know what preventative measures to take to avoid one. 

Tips for Preventing Electrical Malfunctions:

  • Regularly check the state of your electrical cords and replace any that are damaged.
  • Have an electrical inspection for around $125 to $250 before carrying out any major upgrades to your home.  
  • Avoid overloading electrical outlets with too many devices running at the same time. 
  • Never force plugs into outlets.
  • Avoid running extension cords under rugs or in areas with a lot of foot traffic. 
  • Only use light bulbs with the appropriate wattage for fixtures and lamps.

4. Appliances Account for 4% of Residential Fires

The state of your electrical systems directly affects the likelihood of your appliances causing a fire. It may seem like appliances are only accountable for a small percentage of residential fires, but they have been responsible for a total of 129,000 home fires over the past decade. If you’re already ensuring that your electrical systems are safe and up to standard, it’s also important to keep your appliances in good working condition in order to minimize the risk of a fire due to malfunction. 

Although all electrical appliances pose a safety risk, it's possible to cut the likelihood of a fire by taking proper precautions and maintaining them. 

Tips for Preventing Appliance Fires:

  • Keep your appliances clean to avoid build-up of lint or grease.
  • Immediately unplug appliances that either blow a fuse or give you an electric shock.
  • Avoid overusing your appliances and unplug them when they’re not in use.
  • Repair or replace appliances that show signs of damage. If your appliance isn’t very old, it may be cheaper to repair it rather than replace it. The cost to repair a washing machine, for example, can be as little as $85.

5. Almost 16,000 Residential Fires Were Caused by an Open Flame

Although open flames may only be responsible for 4% of residential fires, they are one of the most preventable causes as most of the sources of open flames are not essential for your home. An open flame can come from a candle, an incense burner, or a fireplace. So if you decide to use these, it’s important to know how you can avoid them causing a fire in your home. 

Tips For Preventing an Open Flame Fire:

  • Never leave candles unattended.
  • Keep flammable items away from open flames.
  • Make sure candles or incense burners are on stable surfaces.
  • Add a fire-proof guard to your fireplace.
  • Don’t install outdoor fire pits too close to the house.

Being Proactive Makes a Difference

In short, residential fires are not to be taken lightly. They have serious consequences and happen more often than you might realize. It is important to make sure we have the proper preventative measures in place to keep our homes and our loved ones safe and sound. Following these steps and installing safety features such as smoke and carbon monoxide detectors will minimize the risks of a home fire. But most importantly, make sure to always be cautious and aware of these fire risks. Pay close attention when cooking and heating your home, and make sure you are using all of your equipment and appliances properly to prevent any fires from starting.

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