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Keep the holiday sizzle in the skillet

October 26, 2005

BY LEAH A. ZELDES

The holidays are coming. It's time to pull out the cookbooks, refresh our memories on how to cook a turkey, bake the family's favorite pie and remember what to do if something catches fire.

Cooking-related accidents, particularly fires, become more of a risk in the press of holiday preparations. Many of us cook more than we usually do. We often cook more hurriedly and distractedly than usual. We plug in extra appliances. More people crowd into the kitchen to help and to get in the way.

In fact, a 2002 report from the U.S. Fire Administration, a branch of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that "Thanksgiving Day fires in residential structures cause more property damage and claim more lives than residential structure fires on other days." The report attributed 42 percent of such fires to cooking, nearly twice that of a normal day.

Further, in an August report, the Fire Administration found that cooking is the leading cause of home fires in the United States, as well as the leading cause of fire injuries. According to that report, in 2002 alone, cooking fires across the country ignited some 185,600 homes, causing 80 deaths, 3,875 injuries and $481 million in property damage. The report attributed most such fires to careless cooks.

"Cooking fires account for a large number of preventable fires and injuries," said Charlie Dickinson, deputy United States fire administrator. "Simply being more attentive to the use of cooking materials and equipment would greatly reduce these types of fires and injuries."

In January, the National Fire Protection Association reported that three in every 10 home fires start in the kitchen -- more than any other place in the home, and two of every three start around the stove.

In Chicago, figures on kitchen fires and fires caused by cooking are hard to come by. According to Larry Langford, spokesman for the Chicago Fire Department, the department doesn't track that data in its records. However, Tim Hadac, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Public Health, said his department's files showed that home fires in general killed 13 Chicagoans in 2003, and Langford said he personally knew of at least two deaths from kitchen fires within the past year.

Most cooking fires start when food or grease catches fire or cooking ignites other items near the stove -- everything from paper towels to potholders. Fire can then quickly jump to cabinets, wall coverings and curtains.

Fire-safety experts recommend that you use only cooking equipment tested and approved by a recognized testing facility. According to the National Fire Protection Association, electric stoves are more likely to start fires and cause injuries and property damage than gas stoves, but gas ranges or stoves create a higher risk of fire deaths.

Fire-safety experts are also very down on a popular cooking technique for the Thanksgiving bird -- the deep-fried turkey. "There are definitely fire hazards related to those," said Patti Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Fire Marshal's office, noting that Underwriters Laboratories Inc., an independent product safety-testing organization, will not certify, with its UL mark, any turkey fryer.

The fryers can easily tip over, spilling scalding oil on anyone nearby, and most units don't have automatic shut-offs for the burners, so oil may heat until it combusts.

"We always have a significant number of incidents with those turkey fryers," Langford said.

What to do

  • If a kitchen fire starts, don't pour water on it. Never pour water on grease or electrical fires.

  • Always keep an oven mitt, a pot lid and a box of baking soda handy by the stove.

  • If a small fire starts in a pan, put on a mitt and smother the flames by carefully sliding a lid over the pan. Turn off the burner. Don't remove the lid until it is completely cool.

  • Extinguish small fires that have spread to the stovetop by coating liberally with baking soda. (Be sure not to use baking powder, which may spread the fire.)

  • If something catches fire in the oven, turn off the heat and keep the oven door closed until the fire goes out. For a fire in the microwave, keep the door closed and unplug the microwave. Make sure to have the oven serviced before you use it again.

  • Keep an ABC-rated fire extinguisher in or near your kitchen. (ABC types can be used on fires stemming from grease or electrical appliances.) However, never discharge a fire extinguisher directly into a pan fire, as it can spray or shoot burning grease around the kitchen, actually spreading the fire.

  • Don't try to stop a big or fast-burning fire yourself. Get out and call the fire department.

    Preventing plans

  • Pay attention to your cooking. A serious fire can start in seconds.

  • Never leave food cooking unattended on the stovetop for more than a few minutes, and turn down the heat if you must step away. Turn it off if you'll be gone for any length of time. Keep a close eye on food in the oven, too.

  • Heat oil gradually to avoid spattering grease. Don't overheat fats, and watch for grease overflows.

  • Keep areas around the stove clear of anything that can catch fire: potholders, towels, rags, curtains and food packages. Clean cooking surfaces to prevent grease buildup, which can ignite.

  • Turn pot handles inward to avoid knocking into them.

  • Enforce a child-free zone of at least 3 feet around the stove. Keep pets from underfoot and off cooking surfaces and nearby countertops to keep them from knocking things onto burners.

  • Wear close-fitting sleeves when cooking. Avoid any floppy or loose clothing that can dangle onto stove burners.

  • Don't overload outlets or extension cords with too many appliances.

  • Double-check the kitchen to make sure all appliances are turned off before you go to bed or leave the house.

  • Install a smoke alarm on every level of your home. Test the batteries every month, and change them once a year. According to the Chicago Fire Department, as of November 2004, 60 percent of fires in Chicago took place in two-story homes, and 97 percent of those homes did not have working smoke detectors. A working smoke alarm more than doubles your chances of surviving a fire.

    Leah A. Zeldes is a suburban-based free lance writer.

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