6 surprising home fire hazards

An alarming number of appliance fires are caused by the units themselves, as opposed to human error.

ShopSmart magazine, from Consumer Reports, identified six appliances that cause the most fires


“It was shocking to learn that appliances can turn themselves on or suddenly short-circuit and go up in flames,” said Lisa Lee Freeman, editor-in-chief of ShopSmart, “so it’s important to learn the signs of trouble and know what to do if you have to deal with an appliance fire.” (Having at least one kitchen fire extinguisher on hand is also a wise step.)

The magazine analyzed data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System from 2002 through 2009 and found appliances were the main cause of 69,000 fires – with about half of the incidents linked to a mechanical, electrical, or design flaw.

Below are the appliances that accounted for most of these fires, and ways you can minimize your risk.

Appliances that are most likely to start a fire

1) Ranges/stoves/ovens

Burners that turn on by themselves and delayed ignition on a gas oven’s bake and broil functions are the leading contributors to a range fire.

Number of fires: 16,824

To play it safe: Look for any unusual error messages on the range’s digital display. Stay in the kitchen when frying, grilling, or broiling food and be sure to keep flammable items, including oven mitts, away from the cooktop. Kids should be kept at least 3 feet from the cooking area.

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2) Clothes dryers

Lint buildup and blockages and gas leaks on dryers that run on gas can cause fires.

Number of fires: 8,717

To play it safe: Don’t run dryers when asleep or when no one is home.  Clean out the lint filter before each load and check vents annually for clogs. If using a gas dryer, install a carbon monoxide alarm near the laundry room to warn of leaks, which are poisonous.

3) Microwave ovens

Units that turn on by themselves and glass doors that shatter unexpectedly can lead to a potential fire.  Some microwave fire victims said that the panel flashed the code “PAN” or “F2” as self-starting began.

Number of fires: 1,705

To play it safe: Don’t store food or other items in the microwave.  Look for unusual error messages on digital display panels and if the unit goes on by itself, try to turn it off. Know where it’s plugged in and which circuit breaker controls it in case it won’t turn off using the microwave’s controls.

4) Refrigerators

Fires can be caused by electronic components that short-circuit, control boards that overheat, or by lightbulbs that stay on when the door is shut.

Number of fires: 1,514

To play it safe: Be aware of unusual error messages on fridges with digital displays. Check that the lightbulb goes off when the fridge is closed by pressing the switch, which is usually inside where the door closes.

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5) Dishwashers

Fires can be caused by circuit boards and heating elements catching fire, and liquid rinse aids that can leak into circuitry, creating a fire hazard.

Number of fires: 1,015

To play it safe: Don’t run a dishwasher when asleep or when no one is home. If the rinse-aid dispenser needs constant refilling, call for a repair. Know which circuit breaker cuts power to the unit in case it starts smoking or goes up in flames.

6) Toasters & toaster ovens

Two potential fire hazards are units that turn themselves on and mechanism jams while toasting.

Number of fires: 902

To play it safe: Unplug toasters when not in use and inspect them for any frayed power cords. Don’t toast anything that doesn’t easily fit into the slot.

Staying on top of surprising home fire hazards

The good news is that these incidents are rare given the millions of appliances sold, and there are ways consumers can protect themselves from an incident. First, register new appliances to be notified of service problems. Secondly, periodically check for recalls at recalls.gov. In the past seven years, more than 18.6 million appliances have been recalled for flaws that could cause a fire.

And of course, always keep one or more kitchen fire extinguishers on hand… just in case.

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