It was 3:30 one cold morning last March when the smoke detectors went off. Kelly Burgo, asleep in the first-floor bedroom of his New Bedford home, at first figured it was a false alarm; someone must be taking a steamy shower or cooking. But when he got up to check, he found his wife, Lorraine, already at the kitchen sink filling a blender jar with water — the first container that had come to hand — and his son, Jayden, just a week short of his 9th birthday, shouting, “There’s smoke coming out of Izzy’s room!”
Before Burgo could react, his wife was running up the stairs to empty the blender onto the fire. He took a moment to fill a pan with water, but by the time he got to the second-floor bedroom across from Jayden’s, the smoke was overwhelming and his wife disoriented inside the room; 22-year-old Isidoro Navedo, his stepson, was still asleep.
“So now I’m in a panic,” Burgo says. “I’m not even thinking of calling 911. I’m just worried about getting my wife and stepson out of the bedroom.” Burgo was running up and down the stairs, alternately shouting to his wife to follow his voice and catching his breath away from the choking air. Luckily, Jayden remained composed, calmly dialing the emergency number and giving the dispatcher his address.
Within a few minutes, first responders were on the scene, where it was later determined the fire had started when a cigarette that Izzy thought he had put out fell into the waste basket. (Smoking is the number one cause of fatal fires.) Police and firefighters got Navedo and Lorraine Burgo out of the house, but both suffered third-degree burns and spent months in the hospital recovering. Damages to the home came to somewhere around $50,000.
Nonetheless, Burgo knows his family was lucky. “There’s not even a question,” he says. “Jayden saved everyone’s life.”
In some ways, fire safety has increased a great deal in the past few decades. Nationwide, there were 370,000 home fires reported in 2011, only about half the rate of 1980. “We have made progress,” says Marty Ahrens, senior manager of fire analysis services at the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy. “We saw a big drop in the ’80s, but for the past 15 years the rate has been pretty stable, so we’d like to see more progress. Plus, if a fire happens, the number of deaths per thousand reported fires hasn’t changed. So we’re doing a better job at preventing fires but not necessarily at saving lives.”
A middle-of-the-night home fire is everyone’s worst nightmare, yet it simultaneously seems like something that will never happen to you. But many of us are still making the kinds of blunders that put us at risk for one. Here are the mistakes you must guard against:
IGNORING LARGE APPLIANCES WHILE THEY’RE RUNNING Washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, and other large appliances can malfunction and cause a fire. Stay home and stay awake when they’re in use. The dryer is particularly prone to fire because of the lint that accumulates in the cabinet and exhaust vents. Clean the lint filter before or after each load. Use rigid or flexible metal venting rather than the plastic kind, and, once a year, remove lint from the vent pipe.
LETTING HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS GET OUT OF HAND More fires are reported on July Fourth than any other day of the year; obey Massachusetts law and don’t use fireworks at home. Come Halloween, use battery-operated flameless candles in jack-o’-lanterns, and be careful to keep costumes and decorations such as dried cornstalks away from flame and sources of heat. If you put up a live Christmas tree in your home, water it daily. “When trees dry out and catch on fire, it can be like a blowtorch in your living room,” says Jennifer Mieth, public information officer for the state Department of Fire Services.
OVERBURDENING EXTENSION CORDS It’s better to plug heat-producing appliances, like irons and coffee machines, directly into the wall rather than using an extension cord. “Every connection gives the electricity a chance to escape the circuit,” Mieth explains. Plus, if an outlet becomes overextended, it will trip the fuse or breaker; extension cords have no such safeguard.
OVERTAXING POWER STRIPS Use these, too, with caution, plugging appliances directly into the outlet whenever possible. “People think that because they have a power strip they can fill up every hole,” says Mieth. “But it’s meant as a convenience to use with low-energy appliances, such as a computer and peripherals.”
HAVING A DIRTY CHIMNEY The National Fire Protection Association recommends calling in a chimney sweep annually to remove creosote, which collects each time wood is burned; clear away obstructions such as raccoon nests or dead birds; check for broken or cracked mortar, through which heat and flames could escape into the walls. Installing a stainless steel liner is worth considering. The cost, according to Beantown Chimney Sweep in Canton, is generally between $1,500 and $3,000.
MISUSING LIGHT BULBS Replace incandescent bulbs with LED ones; they’re cooler and less likely to cause a fire. Replace indoor incandescent holiday lights, too, with LED versions; don’t plug more than three strands into any one outlet, and be careful not to pierce the wire when nailing lights to a wall or molding. If you have a “ginormous” outdoor display, Mieth says, “invest in an electrician and make sure you have an appropriate amount of electricity in your system and good outside outlets.” Only use outdoor lights outdoors and indoors lights indoors. Finally, check the packaging or tags on any lights in your home — particularly closed overhead ceiling fixtures — and use only bulbs with the recommended wattage.
LEAVING THE KITCHEN WHILE COOKING More fires start in the kitchen than anywhere else in the home, and unattended cooking is the leading cause. “If you really have to wander away while cooking, bring a timer with you,” Mieth explains. If there is a stove-top fire, “put a lid on it,” she advises. “A lot of people panic, grab a pan that’s on fire, run to the sink, and spread the flame to the cabinets.” If you don’t get the fire out immediately, leave the house and call 911.
MIXING OIL AND FLAMES Oil, fat, and grease fires make up the largest portion of cooking fires, so proceed with caution when using them.
OVERLOOKING THE MICROWAVE People don’t often think of microwaves as a fire hazard, but they can be; objects like microwave popcorn bags and therapeutic neck pillows can overheat, metal-edged bowls and foil can cause sparking, and recycled paper towels can contain minute metal flecks. Never put combustible liquids in the microwave, and, again, don’t leave food unattended.
WEARING LOOSE CLOTHING NEAR THE STOVE If you must make that first cup of tea in your bathrobe, be extremely cautious. Loose clothing with open sleeves can go up quickly, and though clothing-related fires account for only 1 percent of those that start in the kitchen, they make up 15 percent of cooking-fire deaths.
USING CANDLES CARELESSLY Don’t leave candles burning unattended, and even when you’re in the room, make sure they are at least a foot away from anything flammable. “If you get a nice FTD [floral] arrangement with a candle in the middle,” says Mieth, “you don’t want to actually light it.” Also, check in advance that Hanukkah or Kwanzaa candles fit snugly in their holders, and be sure to place a menorah or kinara on a fire-safe surface before lighting it. In 2008, a rabbi in Chester, New York, lost his home in a blaze started by a menorah candle.
IGNORING HEATING EQUIPMENT MAINTENANCE Before winter every year or two, it’s a good idea to have a licensed pro clean your furnace or boiler and give it a thorough checkup. Not only will it be safer — heating equipment can cause fires and is the leading cause of carbon monoxide incidents in the home — this practice will also save you money with increased efficiency. And no matter how well maintained your equipment, remember that state law requires carbon monoxide detectors on every floor, including habitable attics and basements. The detectors should be placed within 10 feet of bedroom doors.
BEING CARELESS WITH SPACE HEATERS Space heaters cause a third of home heating fires and four out of five home heating deaths. Keep your unit away from combustibles like furniture, drapes, and newspapers; separate it from your bed especially, so you can’t accidentally kick the covers onto it in the night. When purchasing a space heater, get one that turns off automatically when tipped or overheated. Don’t let electric candles placed on windowsills for holidays come into contact with curtains, either.
NEGLECTING YOUR ELECTRICAL SYSTEM Every 10 years, have your electrical system evaluated by a professional. “We’re constantly bringing more electronics and appliances into our homes,” says Mieth, “so you want to make sure your system stays up to date and continues to meet your needs. People are afraid if they ask the electrician to come they’ll get a huge bill, but the cost of an assessment won’t be high.”
MISUSING OUTDOOR GRILLS Position your grill at least 10 feet away from the house or porch and away from overhead obstructions, such as tents or trees, to keep airborne sparks from igniting. And don’t use the grill in enclosed spaces like your garage, because of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Before turning on a gas or propane grill, check that all connections are tight and hoses are in good condition. Never ignite a gas or propane grill with the lid closed, as the fuel could accumulate and cause an explosion when sparked. Store extra propane tanks outdoors in the shade. Never use gasoline or kerosene to start a charcoal fire, and never pour more lighter fluid on a burning charcoal grill to make the fire hotter. The flame can travel up the stream in a flash and cause severe burns.
NOT PAYING ATTENTION TO KIDS AND PETS Keep children and pets from cooking surfaces when they’re in use, and don’t store snacks near the stove. Pets can pose a tripping hazard to cooks. Be very careful with children and pets not only when cooking but also when burning candles. Ahrens recalls the day her friend’s cat brushed past a candle on a low coffee table and his tail lit up. “I yelled, ‘The cat’s on fire!’ ” she says. “We put him out in time, but it was lucky he didn’t get scared and run under the bed or something. Cats don’t stop, drop, and roll.”
TOSSING CIGARETTES IMPROPERLY Though fewer people smoke than in previous decades, the habit is still the number one cause of civilian home fire deaths. If you smoke inside, keep ashes and butts off furniture, rugs, and bedding, and never throw them into trash cans. Outdoors, don’t flick spent cigarettes into mulch, raked leaves, or dried-out plants or onto wooden porch floors. Use metal or glass containers filled with sand or water for disposal.
MAKING UNWISE HOME IMPROVEMENT CHOICES If you’re a DIYer, choose products that are low in volatile organic compounds, or VOCs; they’re less combustible and greener to boot. Rags soaked with oil, paint, varnish, or other flammable liquids require several steps for safe disposal: Dry the rags outside, place them in a metal container with a tight-fitting lid (like a paint can), and, before sealing, cover with a mix of water and a detergent that breaks up oil; bring this to your community’s next hazardous waste drop-off. “We get a lot of fires from people balling up rags and putting them in a trash bag or can,” says Mieth. “They’re able to generate enough heat that they’ll self-combust.”
IGNORING SMALL APPLIANCES Keep heat-producing appliances such as irons away from flammables, and don’t forget they need a cooling-off period. “I remember a woman who was surprised to hear that she shouldn’t let her curling iron warm up on the bed,” says Ahrens.
BEING RECKLESS WITH OUTDOOR FIRES Boston does not allow fire pits, chimineas, bonfires, or open burning of any kind, but some cities and towns in the state do. If you do light an outdoor fire, never use lighter fluid, kerosene, or other flammable liquids in or near it, and have a garden hose nearby. Once your fire goes out, pour plenty of water on the ashes; even after two or three days, ashes can still reignite, so store them in a metal container and do not discard them in a compost pile or with anything combustible.
DISMISSING STRANGE SOUNDS AND SMELLS Bring in an electrician if you suspect your wiring is acting up — for example, if your lights flicker. If you hear a buzzing or sizzling sound inside the walls or if you smell a vague odor of something burning, call your local firefighters; they have thermal-imaging cameras that can look for excessive heat you may not be able to feel.
FAILING TO USE A SMOKE ALARM Working smoke alarms coupled with a practiced escape plan cut your chances of dying in a fire in half. “One of the things we find when we respond to fatal fires is the lack of a working smoke alarm,” says Mieth. “It’s your first line of defense.”
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF A FIRE STARTS?
1) Quickly take stock of the situation. Notify everyone in the house and gauge the extent of the fire. Ninety-seven percent of fires are suppressed in time by homeowners, usually just by smothering the flames before they get out of control, according to Marty Ahrens, senior manager of fire analysis services at the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy. Jennifer Mieth, public information officer for the state Department of Fire Services, does not recommend relying on a fire extinguisher unless you are positive it’s fully charged and you know what you’re doing with it; PASS, or “pull, aim, squeeze, and sweep,” is the recommended technique. If you do use one, make sure you always keep it between you and the exit. “Most people who are injured by a fire are those trying to put it out,” says Mieth.
2) Get out of the house and call 911 the instant you feel out of your depth. A fire typically doubles in size every 60 seconds, Mieth says.
3) Know how to get out. “The middle of the night when the smoke alarm goes off is not the time to develop your escape plan,” Mieth says. Make sure there are two ways out of every room — if one is a window, don’t block it with furniture or an air conditioner. If a person who has mental or physical disabilities or is bedbound lives in the house, practice getting that person out safely. “Say you have someone in the house with dementia,” says Ahrens. “He or she may understand the fire drill one time and by the next time you do it, it’s become too complicated. She may not listen to you. Can you physically pick that person up? Can you get them into a wheelchair?”
4) Have regular fire drills. “In an emergency,” says Mieth, “we’ll fall back on what we actually practiced.” Family fire drills can be a “fun game” for the kids, she says, but they’re really learning a valuable skill that will stay with them if they ever need it.
5) Designate a spot in the front yard at which to meet. “When I started here 30 years ago,” Mieth says, “we used to lose a lot of frantic moms. Mom would get out one way and the kid another, and mom would be looking for the kid and reenter the burning building.” If someone’s missing from your head count once you reach the meeting place, never go back into the building; that’s the firefighters’ job, and once they know they are undertaking a rescue mission, they will approach the fire differently. They will also do their best to save any pets that might not have gotten out. Free window decals from the ASPCA can alert rescue personnel that pets live in your home.
6) Stop, drop, and roll. That’s the firefighter’s mantra if you should get burned on your way out. Hopefully you’ll never have to use it.
Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.