How to prevent common household fires

Reviewed by Chuck Roydhouse

Updated March 11, 2024

The top causes of household fires are pretty well known, but few of us realize just how devastating a fire can be if it’s not brought under control right away.

Three candles

General tips to reduce household fires

Simple steps can make a big difference in your chances of having a household fire:

  • Smoke detector: Make sure it’s working. If it starts beeping, the battery probably needs replacing.

  • Barbecue: Make sure the barbecue is well away from the edge of your building and any foliage. And, remember that the difference between a barbecued and burnt meal is generally determined by the amount of attention given to the process – so pay attention.

  • Heaters: Keep portable heaters at least a metre away from anything combustible. Never lay wet clothes or shoes on top of heaters to dry.

  • Cigarettes: Smoke outside and don’t drop butts on the ground. Use a deep ashtray, rather than throwing butts in a planter, as embers can smolder and cause the plant to catch on fire.

  • Electrical appliances: If a toaster or any other electrical appliance only cost $3.99, think about how good the wiring is likely to be. Electrical fires are also common where too many appliances are plugged into the same outlet. If you have ever blown a fuse by turning on the hairdryer or microwave, the wiring needs to be assessed by a qualified electrician.

  • Children: We’re not suggesting your child is a pyromaniac, but it is normal to be interested in fire – teach your kids to respect fire.

Smoking material fires

Smoking materials cause about 9% of all residential fires in Canada, and 11% of outdoor fires. “Smoking materials” include cigarettes, lighters, matches, cannabis, and e-cigarettes. That’s a lot of unnecessary damage that’s easy to prevent if you handle smoking materials responsibly.

If you smoke, make sure you follow these fire safety rules:

  • Always smoke outdoors.
  • Be aware of your surroundings while you’re smoking, taking note of anything nearby that’s easily combustible.
  • Avoid smoking while you’re drowsy, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Reduced impairment increases the chances that you’ll accidentally handle your smoking materials improperly.
  • Never smoke in bed. As many as 40% of smoking-caused residential fires start in the bedroom.
  • Never smoke near medical oxygen. The presence of extra oxygen can cause a fire to start and spread exponentially faster than normal.
  • Always keep smoking materials out of the reach of children.

As well, make sure you always dispose of cigarette butts responsibly. Never discard cigarette butts in or near plant materials. That includes near grass, gardens, planters, or dead plant material like lawn clippings. Even peat moss, commonly used by home gardeners, can catch fire from a smouldering cigarette.

It’s also important to follow the safety rules while you’re camping, driving, or otherwise enjoying the outdoors. During BC’s destructive 2015 wildfire season, smoking materials caused 26% of the province’s 2,835 outdoor fires.

Instead of tossing cigarette butts carelessly, extinguish them in a deep ashtray. Then, wet them and toss them in the trash. Never throw out a cigarette butt that hasn’t been wet; still-warm cigarette butts in the trash can smoulder and ignite devastating fires. That applies to matches as well.

Candle fires

Candles can be so beautiful. They create a nice warm light and give your home a very cozy ambience. Not to mention a lovely aroma when you use spicy, seasonal scented candles. But never forget, candles can be dangerous. According to the US National Fire Protection Association, for years 2003-2007:

  • More than half of all candle fires started when the candle was too close to a flammable item, such as furniture, curtains, or decorations.

  • In one-fifth of the fires, the candles were unattended or abandoned.

  • More than one-third of home candle fires begin in the bedroom.

  • December is the peak time of year for home candle fires. In fact, 4 of the top 5 days for home candle fires were between December 23 and January 1.

So here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Never leave candles unattended.
  • Don’t use candles in the bedroom, or anywhere else where you may fall asleep.
  • Don’t use candles when there are small children or pets around.
  • Keep candle wicks trimmed to about a quarter of an inch.
  • Use sturdy candle holders that won’t tip over, and don’t let the candle burn right to the end.
  • Be very careful if carrying a burning candle. Hold it away from your clothes or anything else flammable.
  • Make sure the candle is not too close to a window, where curtains can blow near the flame.
  • Use battery operated tea lights. They look just as good, but aren’t dangerous.

Candle are beautiful but are a very real fire hazard. With so many other options today, you can have a warm, cheery ambience without the worry.

Light fires

Outdoor lights

Outdoor lighting isn’t a common source of fires, but it’s still important to be mindful of their potential as fire hazards.

  • Only use lights approved by the Canadian Standards Association.
  • Don’t connect more than three strings of lights together.
  • Point bulbs downward so that moisture can’t build up inside.
  • Turn out the lights before going to bed and leaving the house so there is no short circuit that could start a fire.
  • Check your light strings and discard those that show wear and tear or are cracked or broken. Do this on the ground, where it is easier to handle.

Indoor lights

Some of the same cautions given for outdoor lights apply to indoor lights, too, as well as these tips:

  • Don’t overload electrical outlets.
  • Don’t use electric lights on metallic plants around your home. If the system is faulty, anyone touching it could be shocked or electrocuted.

Dryer fires

Every year, there are thousands of dryer fires. How can you prevent this from happening to you?

  • Clean the lint screen every time you use your dryer.

  • Vacuum around and under your dryer where lint can collect.

  • Don’t put cleaning rags in the dryer. These can contain flammable liquids or oils which can heat dangerously in the dryer.

  • Read your dryer’s manual and follow any service recommendations. It is often recommended to have the dryer taken apart and thoroughly cleaned out by a qualified service technician every 1-3 years, depending on how often you use your dryer.

  • Clean the dryer vent periodically, at least once each year. Go outside while the dryer is running and make sure the exhaust air is blowing out. If not, there could be a blockage in the ducting.

  • Leave space between dryer and wall. If you put the dryer right against the wall, you can crush the venting material.

  • Call a service technician if you notice your clothes are excessively hot when they come out, or if they’re taking an overly long time to dry. Your dryer may need maintenance.

  • Don’t leave your dryer running when you go out or when you go to bed.

A dryer is an important appliance to have in Canada, especially in the winter when the weather makes it impossible to hang clothes outside. Just take a few precautions to make sure your dryer is properly maintained, allowing it to operate efficiently, and helping to keep your home safe from fire.

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Fireplace fires

With their open flames, fireplaces are a natural fire hazard, so use care:

  • Don’t leave a fire unattended and don’t let it smoulder.
  • Use only seasoned, dry wood as fuel.
  • Make sure to have the chimney flue cleaned and open prior to building a fire.
  • Place a screen in front of the fireplace to guard against flying sparks, ensuring that it fits tightly.
  • Don’t toss loose paper into the fire, because it can ignite quickly and burn intensely, causing a flash fire.
  • Keep the area around the fireplace clear of all home decorations when a fire is lit.
  • Place the fire logs toward the rear of the fireplace, preferably on a grate.
  • Don’t overload the fireplace with logs.
  • Always keep a fire extinguisher nearby.
  • Wood should be stacked and covered outdoors and off the ground.

Kitchen fires

Did you know that fires start in the kitchen more often than anywhere else? Here are 10 tips to prevent kitchen fires from starting:

  • Turn pot handles in, not away where they can be bumped, or worse, be pulled down by a child.
  • Don’t leave anything unattended in or on the stove.
  • Roll up your sleeves. Don’t let loose clothing catch on fire.
  • Keep your stove clean. Fire hazards increase when grease builds up.
  • Don’t use your oven as extra storage. And don’t store items over the stove.
  • Be careful when cooking with oil or grease. Spatters can catch fire.
  • Keep flammable items, such as curtains or paper towels, away from the stove.
  • Check electrical cords for fraying or loose connections.
  • Always use a pot holder, not a towel. Towels can ignite if they touch the burner.
  • Keep baking soda by the stove. If a fire starts in a pan, smother it with a lid or cover it with baking soda.

Kitchen fires can cause significant smoke damage to your entire home, even if the fire itself is contained to the kitchen. Learn more in the infographic below.

For a quick overview of Kitchen Fire Safety Tips, check out the infographic below.

Infographic of kitchen fire prevention tips for your home

If you own your home, be sure you have the right insurance to cover all of your property. If you are a renter, having renter’s insurance in place can provide coverage for not only your own property, but also for any fire and smoke damage to the unit you’re renting.

Want to learn more? Visit our Home and Personal Safety resource centre to find more information about protecting your family and your home. Or, get an online quote in under 5 minutes and find out how affordable personalized home insurance can be.

About the expert: Chuck Roydhouse

Chuck Roydhouse is a retired professional firefighter, owner of Clean Sweep of Anne Arundel County, and President of CSIA (Chimney Safety Institute of America). He has a degree in Fire Science & Safety from Shepherd University and 25 years of experience as a career firefighter. Chuck has been serving the chimney industry for 30 years as a CSIA Master Chimney Sweep.


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