HFD wants folks to 'stay fire smart'
Nearly 40 percent of the home fires in Hawai'i last year happened when people stopped paying attention to food they were cooking, according to statewide statistics.
Of 714 residential fires across the state last year, 276 were traced to what firefighters describe as "unattended cooking," according to Honolulu Fire Capt. Terry Seelig.
Often such fires cause minor property damage before someone smells the burning food but Seelig points out that two blazes early this year on O'ahu destroyed houses and left the families without a place to live.
A fire in Kane'ohe on Jan. 25 caused an estimated $570,000 to the house and contents and left a family of five homeless when someone left a pot of oil used to fry food on the stovetop with the burner on.
Seelig said the oil ignited when the family went out and spread to nearby surfaces until the whole house was engulfed in flames.
Less than a month later, a fire in Ma'ili on Feb. 17 caused $230,000 damage to a house and contents. A teen cooking french fries for the family also accidentally left the burner on under the pot of oil, he said.
And that case offers another warning. Seelig said the batteries ran low on a nearby smoke detector in that house and someone removed them to silence that annoying chirp from a dying alarm.
Cooking fires happen everywhere, that's why this week's annual Fire Prevention Week awareness theme also focuses on this problem with the slogan: "Stay Fire Smart Don't Get Burned."
The National Fire Protection Association said fire departments throughout the country responded to 146,400 home structure fires involving cooking in 2005. These fires caused 480 civilian fire deaths, 4,690 civilian fire injuries and $876 million in direct property damage.
Seelig hopes that more of us will think about ways we can help prevent such house fires.
"People are busy," Seelig said. And he knows they can be easily distracted, too: a telephone call, a doorbell, a child who needs help.
So, he has a few suggestions that may help prevent kitchen fires, beyond the biggest and most obvious tip: Don't walk away from food that's cooking.
If you do have to leave the kitchen, turn on a timer that keeps ringing until you turn it off.
If you don't turn the stove off, take something like a spoon or oven mitt to remind yourself of the food on the stove or in the oven. Whatever you leave to do, you'll still wonder why the heck you've got a spoon in your hand.
Seelig also reminds folks to not cook when they are sleepy, intoxicated or taking a lot of medication.
Some other useful tips from Seelig:
• Keep the stovetop clean and clear. Keep all appliances free of grease buildup. Wipe up spills and routinely clean the oven. Move items such as oven mitts and utensils away from heat sources.
• Wear short sleeves or snug-fitting sleeves when cooking.
• To prevent microwave oven flare-ups, never put metallic materials in the microwave, which may spark a fire.
• If you have a fire in your microwave, close the door to the microwave and unplug it immediately.
The Honolulu Fire Department offers some other fire tips during Fire Prevention Week, which ends Saturday.
If a kitchen fire flares up:
• Have a pot lid handy to smother a pan fire. Don't pick up the pot or pan. Shut off the heat and cover the fire with a lid.
• Don't pour water on a stovetop fire, which can splash and spread the fire.
• Keep an ABC dry chemical fire extinguisher near the kitchen.
To help prevent burns:
• Turn all pot handles inward. Anyone especially children and animals could easily bump you and/or a pot handle, spilling hot grease or boiling water.
• Make a house rule of a "kid-free" zone around the stove.
• Never hold a child in your arms while preparing hot foods or drinking a hot beverage.
• Avoid steam escaping from a pan or container, especially food cooked in a microwave oven. Open food that has been cooked in the microwave carefully.
• Try not to reach over the stove for other items.
• Set hot water temperature no higher than 120 degrees.