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Burning issues

Kitchen fires continue to be a major concern.

April 20, 2012 
By Martin Sunderland

Kitchen fires continue to be a major concern. They represent the single most common cause of reported residential structure fires in British Columbia, in other Canadian provinces and in the United States. According to the BC Office of the Fire Commissioner, ovens and stoves caused about 35 per cent of reported fires in 2009 and 40 per cent in 2010. NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) numbers for the U.S. gathered from 2005-2009 show a similar trend at 42 per cent.

Fire departments need to change their fire-prevention messages to target specific groups at risk from kitchen fires, including seniors, new Canadians and children.


These numbers do not accurately represent the true gravity of the problem, as many close calls are never reported. When residents are able to successfully extinguish a stove or oven fire, they typically do not call the fire department. 

The dilemma facing fire departments is how to significantly reduce the number of cooking fires occurring in our communities. This goal will be achieved only by understanding the root causes of these fires and then creating effective and comprehensive fire-prevention programs specifically designed to address them.
The principal causes of cooking fires include:

  • unattended cooking
  • grease buildup on stove or oven
  • combustibles stored on or near stovetop
  • improper use of cooking appliances
  • contact of clothing with element or burner.

Unattended cooking is by far the greatest problem but it is also the most difficult fire cause to prevent. Why do people leave the stove? There are a number of reasons including distractions (phone calls, children, television), forgetfulness, fatigue, substance abuse and others. These human factors involve behaviours that may be difficult, if not impossible to change. They are also present in groups whose cognitive abilities may be impaired by age, mental ability or circumstances.

In order to address these diverse groups, we need to have an educational strategy aimed specifically at each one, instead of the generic messaging that the fire service has traditionally employed with limited success. Developing these strategies requires gaining knowledge and understanding of each group’s needs, issues, learning styles and level of comprehension. This will be best accomplished by forming partnerships with agencies that deal with these groups regularly. Then, we can develop lesson plans and resources that are relevant and appropriate. For example, seniors dealing with memory loss might be encouraged to use a reminder device every time they turn on the stove. This, along with other messages, could be delivered through home-care workers, seniors’ associations and strata organizations. Once an effective curriculum and lesson plan has been created, fire-prevention educators should consider a train-the-trainer approach to maximize the reach of their messaging.

Consideration must also be given to cooking practices brought to Canada from other countries. For example, open-fire cooking – a practice employed indoors in some areas where homes are built from limited combustible materials such as mud brick and soil floors – would not be suitable in a wood-framed residential structure. Propane burning appliances are often used indoors in countries where there is no electricity or natural gas supply, but in a typically well- insulated and sealed Canadian home pose a serious risk of fire or carbon-monoxide poisoning.

We need to reach out to our diverse multicultural population with suggestions for adapting traditional cooking methods to ensure their safety. The fire service needs to raise awareness of the differences in construction methods and their implications. These lessons will need to be made available in multiple languages and delivered through organizations best suited to reaching each distinct cultural population group.

We have traditionally focused most of our educational efforts on the very young with messages such as Don’t play with lighters or matches, Stop, drop and roll, and Get out and stay out. While these messages remain important, we need to understand that children are now cooking, often unsupervised, at an early age. We need to bring safe cooking messages into the schools. Working with our school districts, we should consider developing kitchen-safety programs for the 10- to 12-year-old age group. This program could be packaged and delivered by classroom teachers, probably with an online component.

We need to develop key messages for children and parents. These messages should promote such concepts as never leaving a stove unattended, keeping small children one metre away from hot things, and steam-burn hazards from microwave ovens.

While we would like to prevent all cooking fires, it is unrealistic to hope for more than a reduction in numbers. On the other hand, if we acknowledge that we will never stop all kitchen fires, we can also focus on strategies and methods for mitigating those fires as effectively as possible to reduce their severity.

The most obvious step toward accomplishing this goal is a continued push to encourage early fire detection through the use of smoke alarms. High-risk groups should be identified and assisted through home-inspection programs, free smoke-alarm supply and installation, and ongoing promotion and education. Novel ideas to remind citizens about regular testing of smoke alarms should be considered, such as working with schools and media to issue a reminder at the beginning of every month.
Research conducted by the NFPA shows that despite decades of education, many people still do not know how to extinguish a stove fire safely. We should take a close look at our methods for teaching the Put a lid on it message, and consider new delivery models. Province-wide or even national media campaigns should be developed.

As a final resort, we should be encouraging the design and manufacture of residential stove fire-suppression systems. While some programs already exist, they are expensive. If these systems were more affordable, it would be easier to convince home owners, care providers and even builders to offer them as an option, particularly in homes of high-risk residents. When combined with an electrical or gas shut-off interlock, these systems should substantially reduce the property losses, injuries and fatalities associated with cooking fires.

All these recommendations come with one drawback – cost. Most fire departments are hard pressed to find sufficient money to expand fire-prevention mandates. In fact, prevention divisions in some jurisdictions are being trimmed, and their priority is often focused on inspections and investigations.

We need to realize that public fire education is a long-term investment that will yield considerable financial gains within a few years. By investing in effective and comprehensive cooking-safety programs in our communities, we will eventually save money on suppression calls. We will also save the huge additional social and emotional cost that comes with every incident.
Funding alternatives for these types of programs do exist. We should begin looking outside our departmental budgets for the money needed to create educational resources, videos, packaging and marketing of safety messages. Our first approach would be to co-produce this program among several fire departments; each would contribute dollars or in-kind services where possible. Additional money could be raised by applying for grants. These come from organizations such as the NFPA, community foundations, insurance companies and government.

Local service clubs such as Lions, Rotary and Kinsmen often make money available for community projects.

With a collaborative approach, our fire services have the ability to be world leaders in innovative fire-safety education and develop real, working solutions to the kitchen-fire problem. We can do this.

Martin Sunderland is a fire inspector in Abbotsford, B.C. Contact him at

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