Getting burned in the kitchen



The best way to have a safe kitchen is to keep me out of it.

Still, as far as I know I’m not the reason why this year’s Fire Prevention Week theme is “Prevent kitchen fires”. Even Congressmen couldn’t argue over whether that’s a good idea. Could they?

“My esteemed colleague doesn’t  understand that if all fires were prevented, it would mean unemployment for untold numbers of construction crews and emergency room workers!”

Okay, I guess they could.

The National Fire Protection Association decides on themes for this week. Since cooking is the number one cause of home fires, I think they’ve chosen wisely. If only they chose wisely when naming their mascot, a huge and rather over-caffeinated looking dog named Sparky.

We don’t want sparks. Sparks are bad, except when lighting campfires, or igniting homemade cannons to flatten alien invaders. Shouldn’t the NFPA mascot be Soggy? Or would that cause thoughts of nightmare scenarios involving puppy training?

I once tried to train our dog to extinguish cooking fires, but he didn’t want to expose that particular part of himself to the flames. Smart dog.

In our house the kitchen is fairly safe as long as I’m not allowed to cook; and when I do, food poisoning usually takes the number one danger spot. Instead, my wife cooks while I do the dishes, which seems fair. No one has ever started a fire while doing dishes, although I did electrocute myself that way, once. Okay, twice.

Long story.

Emily’s a hands-on cook. She cuts stuff up, mixes things together, does everything the 50’s sitcom wives did while wearing high heels and pearl necklaces. I don’t get it. Do we not have wonderful people in factories cooking this stuff for us, and throwing it into convenient boxes named Banquet, or Swanson? If I could get frozen boxes of freshly washed pots and pans, I’d throw that kitchen sink right out the window.

But frozen dinners don’t protect you from kitchen fires, and her cooking is way better than the lines of little old ladies slapping stuff together in the Banquet family kitchen, so who am I to complain?

Meanwhile, I can speak with some authority on kitchen fires, both because I’m a firefighter and, well … I used to cook a lot.

Kitchen fires are common because that’s where the fire is. Whether you use electric or gas, stuff gets hot, and hot is dangerous. When stuff catches on fire people panic, doing such things as pouring water on the flames—because it’s the kitchen, and there’s water right there, after all.

Here are a few other things people do wrong, when it comes to cooking:

They leave.

Leaving is bad. Almost all unattended fires don’t have anyone attending them. Most stove fires I’ve gone to as a firefighter were unattended, and even if the flames don’t spread beyond the pan, let me assure you: The smell is horrible.

They fall asleep.

Dude, if you’re that tired, sleep now—have breakfast later.

They drink.

Cooking sherry is for cooking. If you’re consuming alcoholic beverages, you should do pretty much nothing else, except maybe watch football or take a nap. Or take a nap while watching football—set an alarm for the halftime show.

They put flammable stuff on the stove.

I have a big plastic bowl with a very odd pattern on the bottom. Kind of dents, in a circular pattern. In fact, it’s the exact same pattern you’ll find on the top of my gas stove if, say, you turned off the flames but didn’t wait for the stove to cool down before you set a big plastic bowl on it.

On any given day, somebody’s stove will have on it an oven mitt, wooden spoon, cardboard food box, or towel. Guaranteed. And every year, 156,000 structure fires are reported that start with cooking. That’s 420 deaths, 5,310 injuries, and almost a billion dollars in property damage. And you know what the worst part of a kitchen fire is? When it’s over …

You’ll still be hungry.

Two thirds of cooking fires start when food itself ignites, which kinda makes sense, and see above about how horrible it smells. Scorched beans and corn especially stink, for some reason. And even though a lot of fires start with unattended cooking, more than half of the injuries come when people try to fight the fires.

Can you fight kitchen fires? Sure, after you call 911 (they’ll wisely tell you to leave), but you’re taking your chances. If you happen to be right there when something in a pan catches, just turn off the heat and drop a lid on it, suffocating the fire.

But a lot of people won’t do that. In a panic, they’ll splash water on the fire, which will cause grease and oil to splatter and spread the fire further. Don’t do that.

Better idea: Have a fire extinguisher and know how to use it. In one of my novels, a panicked character tries to read the directions on the extinguisher after a fire breaks out. That’s a poor time to take a class, people. (And why haven’t you read that book? I mean, other than that it’s not published yet?)

Read the directions and take a class, so if the fire’s very small you can stand with your back to an exit, aim the extinguisher at the base of the fire, and get the heck outside, preferably after you dialed 911. Do I sound too cautious? Well, last year 2,520 civilians died in fires, and another 13,910 were injured. Do I still sound too cautious?

That’s just a quick overview of the dangers, and what you can do about them. Oh, and one more thing: Thanksgiving is the number one day for home cooking fires, so order take-out.

Then you can stay out of the kitchen, and enjoy your nap during the football game.

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