Over three months of pandemic isolation, many of us have taken consolation in cooking. It’s a great source of mental engagement and entertainment. Or a great way to zone out and de-stress. Or a new avenue for building digital community in an era of physical disconnection. Unfortunately, a growing number of reports suggest that pandemic cooking has also been a great way for record numbers of Americans and Canadians to set their homes on fire.
It’s impossible to say exactly how many more people have set their kitchens aflame recently. Susan McKelvey of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) notes that her group and others that collect data on house fires only do so on a yearly basis, and “there’s a lag of a few years” between a given incident and its analysis. But reports in Alberta, Kentucky, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Ontario, Oregon, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, and beyond show that between March and May of this year many areas experienced up to twice as many home fires as they did over the same time period in 2019. “We have also heard anecdotal reporting about spikes in home fires in some states,” adds McKelvey.
Some of these fires were the result of people, following dangerous misinformation online, trying to sanitize often flammable face masks by heating them up in microwaves or ovens. Other fires might have been the result of a few bored, pyromaniacally inclined individuals messing with matches. But most reports firmly tied these fires to cooking-related mishaps.
It’s tempting to explain this away as the natural byproduct of people just cooking more than they usually do: If people go from cooking, on average, one meal a day at home to two or three, then it stands to follow that fires would spike by similar levels. Some fire experts have equated this spike to those that occur most years when people hunker down inside during harsh winter storms.
But local reports say that many recent fires seem to be the result of people trying to cook for the first time, perhaps as a reaction to frugality or isolation-era boredom. These novice cooks may end up igniting an uncleaned stove, pouring oil into a super-heated pan, or making some other dangerous rookie error that can end in a conflagration.
Many more fires appear to be a byproduct of the distractions of pandemic life. After all, it’s no small task juggling a Zoom work meeting, caring for children who can’t go to school, and cooking all at the same time. Unattended stoves or ovens are always leading causes of cooking fires, which are in turn the most common types of home fires. (Heating and electrical and lighting equipment accidents are the second and third most common causes of home fires, respectively, and might also be on the rise as we spend more time at home, constantly plugged in.) And according to a Red Cross survey, 70% of people have left their cooking unattended in normal times. The more distractions the current climate piles on us, the more likely even the most experienced home cook is to slip up, step away, and come back to find some scary smoke and flames.
This is a huge problem, as it creates knock-on crises, compounding the stresses of the pandemic for tens of thousands in the U.S. and Canada alone. Cooking fires, if they get out of control, can end up displacing families, and this is a time when it feels especially dangerous to bounce between hotels or shelters. Responding to an increased number of fires also puts first responders at greater risk of encountering the coronavirus; many say they fear getting infected while out on a job and then bringing the disease back to their crews, roommates, or families.
“The good news is that kitchen fires can be prevented,” says Greta Gustafson of the American Red Cross. One need simply follow well-established kitchen safety guidelines.
First and foremost, organizations like the NFPA and Red Cross recommend that someone stay in the kitchen at all times while anything is in the oven or on the stove. If you have to leave your cooking unattended, even for a moment, you should turn off the burner or the oven. If you use a gas stove, make sure the knobs are fully off when you leave, as a rushed half twist is a good way to leave the gas on and spark a minor fireball when you return and reignite the burner.
If you’re ever feeling tired, stoned, or drunk, you should also consider taking a pass on cooking until you’re fully present. You don’t want to zone out with a flame on. Whether or not you feel you’re at risk, consider using a timer when you cook to help make sure that you respond to hot dishes in a timely manner.
Experts also recommend regularly cleaning your oven, which should not be a huge chore because most are self-cleaning these days. Make sure that you haven’t left any flammable materials—towels, bags, and the like—near stove burners. (Avoid wearing loose sleeves while cooking, too. Fires caused by loose clothing catching fire are relatively rare but cause a disproportionate number of injuries.) And keep all your pot and pan handles turned in rather than hanging over the edge of the stove so you don’t risk bumping into them and sending hot matter flying all over.
Grill users should take care to regularly clean out their grills’ grease traps; move their grills out from under awnings, branches, or other flammable matter; and use long-handled utensils to avoid getting too close to open flames. Experts also note that grill cooks should never add charcoal starter fluid to coals that have already ignited; that just risks creating a fireball.
Check your smoke alarms once a month and replace their batteries once a year. You should also have an evacuation plan to exit your home within two minutes of detecting a fire. And it’s not a bad idea to keep a fire extinguisher on hand—although make sure that you know how to use it before you have to respond to a fire in the kitchen. Improper usage risks spreading flames around instead of putting them out.
If you’re in the kitchen and you see a pot or pan start to smoke, just turn off the heat and cover it with a lid or cooking sheet to smother the nascent fire. If you’re cooking with grease or oil, do not try to put out any flames using water, baking soda, salt, or sugar, as all of those could feed the fire instead. If you notice a flame or smoke coming from your oven, turn it off and keep the door closed to control the blaze. And if you see a fire in your microwave, unplug it if you can and keep the door closed. If the smoke and flames are not quickly contained, call your local fire department and get to safety.
This might seem like an overwhelming number of things to consider, especially for folks who’ve just started cooking and are already feeling overloaded by the endless barrage of madness that is 2020. But making the effort to practice caution in the kitchen is certainly worth it, because dealing with even a minor kitchen fire would certainly make your life even more stressful.
And even though these precautions take a bit of thought at first, if you make them a habit, you’ll be surprised how quickly they become second nature. Plus, when you’re safer in the kitchen, you’ll feel altogether more confident in your cooking.