5 Leading Causes of House Fires: What Is The #1 Reason?

House fires can be devastating events that pose significant risks to both lives and property.

Residential fires can start for various reasons, including electrical faults, cooking accidents, or heating malfunctions such as with space heaters.

In this guide, we’ll explore the causes of house fires in the USA, aiming to provide information that is accessible and easy to understand.

Top House Fire Cause Statistics – (Editor’s Choice)

This is our shortlist of the most compelling statistics on the causes of residential house fires.

  • Cooking is the #1 cause of all home fires in the U.S.
  • 50% of all residential structure fires occur from cooking.
  • An average of 166,430 residential fires occur each year from cooking (2016-2020).
  • $1.2 billion dollars of property damage happens each year due to cooking fires.
  • Cooking is also the leading cause of injuries due to home fires.
  • Smoking is the top cause for home fires that result in fatalities.
  • Smoking caused 15,900 fires on average every year (2016-2020) and resulted in 620 fatalities.
  • The kitchen is the leading room where home fires start (44% of all residential fires).
  • The living room and bedroom combined are the rooms where 51% of all home fires start that lead to fatalities.

The 5 Causes of House Fires

There are 5 primary causes of residential structure fires in the United States which include:

  1. Cooking (49%)
  2. Heating Equipment (Space heaters etc.) (13%)
  3. Electrical and Lighting (9%)
  4. Intentional/Arson (9%)
  5. Smoking (Cigarettes, Cigars etc.) (5%)

#1 Cause: Cooking

Cooking has been and likely will continue to be the leading cause of residential house fires.

According to the NFPA, an average of 166,430 home fires are caused by cooking each year (2016 to 2020) which is almost half of all reported fires.

house fire causes

During this period, cooking fires resulted in an annual average of:

  • 520 fatalities
  • 4,520 injuries
  • $1.2 billion dollars in property damage.

Cooking activities are the #1 cause of injuries due to house fires but is the #2 cause of home fire fatalities.

Cooking Fire Prevention

The main reason why cooking causes so many fires is due to people leaving the range or cooktop unattended. The simplest solution is for occupants to avoid leaving the kitchen when cooking anything on the cooktop or range.

Or if you leave the kitchen, turn off the range. Homeowners should also avoid leaving combustible materials near the range such as oven mitts, kitchen towels, cooking books etc.

#2 Cause: Heating Equipment

Home heating appliances such as space heaters, electric baseboard heaters, furnaces, gas fireplaces, and other heating devices were the 2nd leading cause of home fires among residential properties.

There was an average of 44,210 fires from 2016 to 2020 as a result of heating appliances.

During this same time period, there occurred an annual average of:

  • 480 deaths
  • 1,370 injuries
  • $1 billion dollars in property damage

Even though heating appliance fires made up only 4% of total fires, they caused 16% of all fire deaths.

Heating Equipment Fire Prevention

The top reason why fires start from heating equipment is due to combustible materials placed nearby. Homeowners should keep anything that may catch fire at least 36-inches away from the heat source such as drapes, furniture, or bedding.

Also, buying heating equipment with modern safety features is recommended. Modern space heaters tend to have safety features that turn it off if it overheats or tips over.

What Causes Most Home Fire Fatalities?

Even though cooking is the leading cause of total home fires and injuries, smoking has led the cause for actual fatalities from home fires for decades.

  1. Smoking (24%)
  2. Cooking (20%)
  3. Heating Equipment (18%)
  4. Electrical/Lighting (15%)
  5. Intentional/Arson (14%)
smoking house fire causes

Smoking

According to the NFPA, between 2016-2020, an average of 15,900 fires occur every year directly related to smoking.

During the same period, smoking related fires caused an annual average of:

  • 620 fatalities
  • 1,030 injuries
  • 549 million dollars of property damage
  • 39 deaths per 1,000 fires
  • 5x the death rate compared to all fires

One of the reasons why smoking leads to fire fatalities is that people fall asleep while the cigarette is still lit. It also makes the origin of the fire near sleeping occupants and by highly flammable materials (bed, sofa, drapes etc.)

Homeowners can reduce their risk of fires by using fire-safe cigarettes, using deep ashtrays, or smoking outside.

The Rooms Where House Fires Start

The reason why smoking can cause more fatalities than cooking fires is likely related to the location. When fires start in the kitchen, the occupants are typically awake and will frequently put out the fire.

But smoking related fires usually start in the bedroom and living room when the occupants may be asleep. Both of these rooms where fires start comprise 51% of all fatalities.

Rooms Where Fire Starts | Fatalities

  1. Living room (26%)
  2. Bedroom (25%)
  3. Kitchen (17%)
  4. Unclassified Function Area (7%)

Rooms Where Fire Starts | Overall (Fatal & Non-Fatal)

When we look at the totality of where fires start, including fatal and non-fatal, the kitchen leads the pack with 44% of all fires. The bedroom comes in second with 6% of home fires.

  1. Kitchen (44%)
  2. Bedroom (6%)
  3. Outside Area (5%)
  4. Chimney or Flue (5%)
  5. Living Room (3%)

Lithium-Ion Battery Fires Are On The Rise

The incidence of lithium-ion battery fires in homes is on the rise.

With the increased use of e-scooters, e-bikes, and other vehicles — battery fires are becoming more prevalent.

This is especially true with uncertified batteries that aren’t UL-listed. UL-listed lithium-ion batteries are made to modern safety standards.

216 fires were recently reported in New York City for a single year that were related to battery fires from e-bikes and e-scooters. The New York Fire Department (FDNY) currently responds to a battery fire almost every single day.

Why Modern Fires Are More Deadly?

The NFPA recently reported that 2021 had the highest residential fire fatalities since 2007, a 14-year high.

Even though the overall trend of house fires has greatly declined since the 1970’s, the number of fatalities has remained stagnant and has had a recent uptick.

Experts theorize that the reason why house fires are more deadly than in the past is related to the widespread use of synthetic fiber, foam, and plastic.

Older homes that were furnished with natural products such as furniture or mattresses stuffed with animal hair or feathers had a much slower burn rate.

It is estimated that homes in the past had about 30-minutes for occupants to safely escape a home fire.

Modern homes typically only have 3-minutes for occupants to escape.

home-fire-fatalities

House Fire Prevention Tips

  • Interconnected Smoke Alarms: If just one interconnected smoke alarm goes off, then all of the other alarms will go off at the same time. When a smoke alarm detects a fire in the basement, it will cause all the smoke alarms in the bedrooms to go off at the same time. Homeowners can buy wireless interconnected smoke alarms for a less costly installation.

    Residential new construction is required by building code to have hardwired and interconnected smoke alarms but older homes will be grandfathered in. The risk of dying from a home fire is reduced by 50% with the use of smoke alarms.
  • Install AFCI Breakers: AFCI stands for arc fault circuit interrupter and it is a type of breaker installed at the panel box. These specialized breakers cut power to a circuit if it detects an electric arc inside the wall or ceiling. These breakers are required for bedroom circuits in new construction and will have a ‘reset’ and ‘test’ button on the breaker (similar to a bathroom GFCI outlet).
  • Close Bedroom Doors: Simply closing the bedroom door when sleeping can help people survive a home fire. During a fire, smoke first travels up (heat rises) and reaches the floor last. It also helps to compartmentalize the fire and prevent feeding it with oxygen.

Conclusion

About 50% of home fires start from cooking and in the kitchen. And even though most fires start from cooking, smoking leads the pack in terms of fatalities.

Fires that result from smoking tend to start in the bedroom or living room—frequently when the occupants are a—leading to increased danger.

It’s clear that education and proactive steps, such as installing interconnected smoke detectors, using fire-safe cigarettes, having a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, and practicing fire safety drills play a pivotal role in safeguarding our homes and loved ones.

Let’s work together to prioritize fire prevention and create safer living environments for everyone.

For more related content, check out where to place smoke detectorsdryer vent code to prevent firesand diagnosing a burning smell from the dryer.

Sources

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