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