6 little-known fire hazards hidden around the home
Most of us know the basics about preventing house fires: never leave a candle unattended; always watch the stove when cooking; never smoke in bed; don't let kids play with matches.
And while cooking, candles and smoking are the biggest causes of house fires, there are a few other hazards around the home many of us might not think about.
We asked two experienced firefighters and fire safety advocates to tell us about some of the lesser-known risks around the home that could lead to devastating fires; here’s what they said.
1. Dusty dryers
Most homeowners know they need to empty their dryer’s lint trays after every load, but when was the last time you had the exhaust hose cleaned out?
A huge number of fires begin in dryers, so to reduce the risk, Toronto Fire Services District Fire Chief Peter Derrington advises taking off the hose to vacuum it out, or have a dryer vent cleaning service come once a year to clean out the vents as well as the dryer cabinet.
Also, plastic dryer vent hoses can be flammable so really should be replaced with either aluminum flexible hoses, or better yet, rigid aluminum.
2. Outdoor smoking
Smoking used to cause a lot of house fires, but even though many smokers now step outside to smoke, careless smoking is still the cause of plenty of fires.
Derrington says he’s seen fires in apartment buildings caused by people flicking their cigarettes off balconies. All it takes is a stiff breeze and that hot cigarette can blow back onto a lower balcony below and ignite something flammable.
Many fires also start in garages, where smokers often head in the winter or in bad weather, says Vaughan Fire and Rescue Deputy Fire Chief Deryn Rizzi. When smokers fail to extinguish their cigarettes properly, blazes can spread quickly.
“Garages are filled with combustible items,” she says. “Often, those fires burn through the garage, then spread into the walls and up into the attic without the homeowner inside even realizing it until it’s too late.”
And there’s the flower-pot-used-as-an-ashtray problem that many smokers might not know about.
The best way to avoid all these fires is to keep a tin can filled with sand or water for cigarette butts and ensure they’re fully cooled before dumping the cans into the garbage.
3. Chimineas and outdoor fireplaces
Just because a wood-burning chiminea, fireplace, or fire bowl is available at your local hardware store doesn’t mean it’s legal to use it.
Each municipality has its own bylaws on open air wood burning, but generally speaking, most urban areas don’t allow wood burning in backyards, and neither do some suburban areas. Some towns allow fire pits for cooking purposes; others say the pits have to be at least 3 metres (10 feet) from the house and property lines; others still require special permits for wood burning.
Derrington says in cities like Toronto where houses are close together, wood-burning outdoor fireplaces are a fire hazard; but gas or propane fire pits are okay.
The bottom line is check the bylaws in your town to be sure you’re not breaking the provincial fire code when curling up by a fire.
4. Smoke alarm mistakes
Rizzi says the City of Vaughan Fire runs a program called Alarms for Life, during which firefighters go door-to-door asking homeowners if they’d like a free smoke alarm check. Most believe their alarms are fine, but her team’s inspections reveal that a full 59 per cent of homes are not in compliance with laws.
The overwhelming majority of fire deaths in Canada occur because there were no smoke alarms or because they weren’t working. Every province has its own laws but generally, at least one smoke alarm should be on every level of the home.
In Ontario, all homes also have to have carbon monoxide detectors near bedrooms — not near the furnace or the stove, but near the bedrooms.
CO detectors have a short lifespan and need to be replaced every five years.Smoke alarms last longer but should be replaced after 10 years.
Today’s newer alarms run on lithium batteries that never need replacing but it’s still a good idea to test them once a month. The same goes for alarms hardwired into a home’s electrical system: test them to ensure they all go off in sequence.
5. Massage oil
Rizzi says this may sound odd but she’s seeing a surprising number of fires at hotels and day spas that start in towels wet with massage oil. Massage oils can sometimes contain flaxseed or linseed which is notorious for spontaneous combustion if oily towels are left lying around in piles.
Other times, the towels are not cleaned properly and then either catch fire in the dryer, or combust after being pulled out of the dryer and left in hot piles.
6. BBQ dangers
There are lots of ways barbecues can be dangerous, but do you know what to do if your flame burns out? ESPN anchor Hannah Storm didn’t, and incurred serious burns when her BBQ exploded. Here’s her story: