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House fires are more dangerous than they used to be (here’s how to prevent them)

For most of us, house fires are the stuff of nightmares. A fire can destroy your whole home and everything you own in a terrifyingly short amount of time. It can also seriously threaten the health, or even the lives, of your loved ones.

Fire often comes out as the #1 fear in homeowner surveys. In the interests of this being an evidence-based guide, we should point out that water leaks are actually by far the leading cause of damage to UK homes – in many years they account for as much damage as all fires and burglaries combined. But water leaks also rarely harm people or pets, so the fear is very understandable.

The good news is house fires are relatively uncommon. There are about 27,000 “dwelling” fires a year in the UK. Considering there are ~24 million homes, you have about a 1-in-850 chance of suffering a fire in any given year. It might be higher than you’d like, but statistically, still less than a 1-in-10 chance in an entire lifetime.

The bad news is, fires are changing.

House fires today don’t play out the same as house fires 50 years ago.  

Fires today burn hotter, burn faster, create more poisonous fumes, and are more prone to smouldering for a long time and reigniting when they find fresh oxygen. They’re literally more dangerous than they used to be.

There are three main reasons why that’s the case:

Reason #1: the rise of synthetic materials

80 years ago, synthetic fabrics literally didn’t exist. Everything was made from natural fibres like cotton, wool flax and silk. Those fibres are more expensive, harder to mass-produce, harder to colour and work with… But one advantage they do have is that they typically burn very cleanly, with minimal smoke and fine ash, and in fact many will self-extinguish when you take the flame away. You definitely don’t want to sit and inhale the smoke, but compared to an average synthetic they’re relatively clean.

Fast-forward to today, and two-thirds of fabrics worldwide are made from petrochemicals. They do have many useful properties, but burn characteristics are not among them. The most popular synthetic by far is polyester, and it burns fiercely with a thick, black smoke; it drips like a candle, sometimes with liquid flame that spreads both flammable material and flame itself.

Fair warning – this next paragraph could be upsetting to some. We’re going to talk about the lethal effects of smoke on the human body, so skip on to the next heading if you feel you might be affected.

Researchers spend a lot of time studying the burn characteristics and smoke composition of different materials for exactly this kind of reason (understanding how they behave in house fires). They use a metric called “LC50” to refer to the “lethal concentration” at which 50% of people will die from inhaling a given chemical. A higher value is safer, a lower value means it kills faster or at lower concentrations. Wood smoke has an LC50 of about 56g / m3; cotton is around 48g / m3. Polyester has an LC50 of 24 to 31g / m3, so the smoke is around twice as toxic as from natural materials. Melamine, a very common coating in laminate flooring and furniture, clocks in at 22g / m3. Modacrylic, which is used for fake fur (think like the shaggy sofa blankets) and the filling in sofa cushions, is just 4g / m3ten times more toxic than natural fibre. And in addition to the base toxicity of the smoke, synthetic materials burn faster and release much more smoke per minute than materials like cotton on wood – meaning there’s a compounding effect of “more smoke, multiplied by more dangerous smoke”.

Likewise, fire spreads much more aggressively in cheap, laminate furniture than traditional solid woods – up to three times faster, depending on which woods you compare. A chair covered in cotton releases a peak heat energy of 370kW when it burns, and takes 15 minutes to get there; a foam-padded chair covered in polyolefin fabric produces 1990kW and takes just four minutes to peak. Even windows are affected: you want windows to last as long as possible in a fire, because it limits the available oxygen to the air in the room. When they break, air from outside rushes in and the result is often a “flashover” – a huge fireball. Legacy single-glazed, wooden-framed windows lasted 10 to 14 minutes in a controlled blaze, where modern uPVC failed in four to five minutes (depending on the brand).

In summary, the phenomenal popularity of synthetic polymers has given us access to cheap, colourful and hard-wearing home goods, but at the price of much faster, more aggressive and more toxic fires than in the past.

If you’d like to see a comparison of the two side-by-side, check out the video below. It’s quite eye-opening:

 

Reason #2: changes in home design

Open-plan living has been rising in popularity since at least the 1990s – depending on which metric you choose, by as much as 168% to ~6000% year-on-year. Architects around the world describe open-plan designs as something “almost all” clients want, “extremely popular” and “only remarkable when clients want the opposite”. Listings mentioning “open concept” on property site Zillow (albeit in the United States) more than doubled between 2015 and 2019, and 84% of new builds now have an open-plan ground floor.

There is some debate over whether the work-from-home revolution will reverse the trend, promoting more private, purposeful spaces... but there’s no denying we’ve been furiously knocking down walls for at least the past 30 years.

Open plan homes allow fires and smoke to spread more easily. The UK Fire and Rescue Service explains that “the potential for rapid fire development is greater in open planned space than in a cellular building”; “allowing for wider fire and smoke spread than a space which is subdivided into rooms”. Compartmentalised buildings help to contain the spread of fire, and the smaller room sizes mean less available oxygen for the fire to burn. Traditionally, firefighters would use tactics like simply closing doors to confine fires (that’s why fire doors in commercial properties always have a device to make them close automatically) – but new home geometries mean that’s simply not possible.

Open-plan designs also tend to make use of lightweight trusses to create that open, airy look. Unfortunately, those same features tend to collapse much faster in a blaze. In one study, the modern, lightweight system collapsed in just six minutes, while traditional lumber and gypsum board held out for 45. Total collapse might occur within 30 minutes for a “modern” fire, but at nearly two hours for a “legacy” fire. That all adds up to extra damage, extra danger, less time to escape… and even that fire service professionals may deem it too dangerous to enter your property.

Much like synthetic fibres, the trend towards open-plan living has given us improved quality of life, but at the cost of dramatically reduced fire safety.

Reason #3: homes are getting closer together

As the population grows, and with it, demand for housing, we’re building homes that are closer together and in many cases, on top of one another. The overall population density of the UK has increased by 35% since the 1950s, meaning about 70 extra people per square kilometre. Average plot sizes are falling every year. Interest in garden rooms, “granny flats” and garden offices has doubled since the pandemic. All of these things bring structures closer together and remove natural “fire breaks”, like gardens, that can otherwise prevent fire from spreading.

But it’s compounded by other, less obvious, factors too: like the rise in divorce rates. One family splitting means they now require two houses for the same number of people. In the 1960s, only 40% of households were made up of one or two people; by 2011, it was nearly 70%. In addition to the housing density issue, that means more individual households cooking every evening, and cooking is the #1 cause of house fires. It means more individual electrical items; literally more chances for a fire to start.

Okay, so now we’ve got a clearer picture of why house fires are getting worse – let’s look at what you can do to protect yourself.

What can you do to protect your home from fire?

Knowing that fires today are more aggressive and dangerous than in the past, we’re going to focus more on how you can prevent them rather than, say, the optimum alarm placement. Not to say alarms aren’t still absolutely vital – they’re a crucial part of your safety toolkit – but more that we want to emphasise how prevention is much better than cure.

So let’s start at the top: cooking appliances are the #1 cause of house fires, responsible for 48% of UK domestic blazes. That means cooking causes roughly the same amount of fires as all other factors combined.

Go and look at your cooking equipment. Not just the oven and stove top – also consider plug-in equipment like toasters. Are there any flammable materials around them? It’s common to store cooking oil, paper towels, or things wrapped in plastic packaging (think like, sliced bread), on and around the cooker on the countertop, or even worse, above it. But if one of these items falls over, spills, melts, gets blown over by a breeze, knocked over by the cat… it’s a serious fire hazard. Try to move those items to cupboards, or at least some distance away from the source of ignition. If you have a shelf above your cooker, use it to store non-flammable things like pans rather than towels or kitchen roll. 

Reprogramming your habits is hard, but try to pay attention to where you put things down when cooking. We’ve all thrown tea towels or oven gloves down on the work surface, next to the hob. But that’s an easy way to start a fire, and a lot of them are made from synthetic fabrics nowadays that will burn easily and produce nauseating toxic smoke.

Toasters are the second-biggest cause of cooking fires after dedicated cookers. In addition to making sure they aren’t stored next to flammables, consider unplugging them whenever they aren’t in use. You could also use a smart plug to automatically disconnect the equipment when nobody’s in the room (check out our guide) – although you’ll need one with a reasonably high power rating (~2kW). Toasters are pretty simple bits of equipment – generally just a heating element and a timer or thermistor (heat sensor). They can easily stick in the “on” position, or short out and set on fire with surprising regularity. Never leave the room while the toaster is in use. Don’t use the toaster to melt butter, or to toast potato waffles or anything else oily. Inspect the cables of toasters and other plug-in equipment and replace them if they look at all frayed or damaged.

It’s important to note that, while electrical faults do happen, they account for just 15% of appliance fires. “Misuse” of equipment causes 35% – which is actually good news for us, because it’s easier to prevent.

The #1 “misuse” of equipment is cooking when drunk. Drunk cooking is thought to account for at least 10% of all fires nationally, but some fire service departments report figures as high as 33%. Statistically, men are particularly at risk. The easiest mitigation is to just order a takeaway if you’ve had a heavy night. If you must cook, do not leave the kitchen.

Other common, but perhaps less obvious, scenarios include: using microwaves as surfaces, particularly for flammable things like notepads or towels, or blocking their air vents. 70% of UK residents admit to storing things on top of the microwave. Around 1 in 5 says they haven’t cleaned their grill in over a year, leading to a dangerous build-up of grease.

Consider fitting fire extinguishers in your home.

It’s the law for public and commercial properties, and rental properties over a certain size… but bizarrely uncommon in homes.

Fire extinguishers are cheap, easy to use, and in addition to putting out fires they reduce the risk of injury substantially. Hopefully you know not to throw water on a grease fire (it creates a spectacular and extremely dangerous fireball). Less common knowledge is that you shouldn’t try to put out a fire with a wet towel – which used to be the go-to advice – it erupts into superheated steam and can cause horrible burns, as well as spreading the fire out in all directions.

Fire extinguishers have none of these problems. Get the ABC dry powder or CO2 type rather than water. ABC is cheap and versatile; it will fight any kind of fire and its only real disadvantage is the powder mess that it leaves behind (but in a fire, you’ve probably got bigger problems). If you’re worried about space or visual appeal, check out the range of tiny but highly effective extinguishers from LifeSafe. There’s one, similar in size to a pack of spaghetti, that you simply drop in a pan to extinguish it. There’s also such a thing as an automatic fire extinguisher: a heat-sensitive extinguisher that goes off when it hits a certain temperature, usually either 68 or 79 degrees C depending on the application. If you’re like us and love to de-risk things, particularly in an automatic way, you could fit one of these above the cooker and the manual variety elsewhere. A fire blanket is also a good idea.

You can also get a fire-retardant spray that you apply to fabrics in your home to reduce the chance they’ll catch fire. Provided the fabric is somewhat absorbent, the colourless, odourless liquid will soak in and provide lasting protection. Test it out on a small, out-of-sight area first to be sure it won’t spoil the finish. Remember our extra-flammable, extra-toxic synthetic fabrics from the start of this article? Those would be prime candidates for a spray.  

Outside the kitchen, risks drop dramatically.

If you ask people to guess the most common causes of fire, typical answers are candles, space heaters, lit cigarettes… but they’re vanishingly small factors compared to cooking. Heaters cause around 3% of fires, and candles are about the same. Smoking materials cause about 6%.

Like with cooking, good habits are the best mitigation. Candles on a windowsill look super cosy, but it also means bringing them close to fire-risk fabrics like blinds and curtains. If you really want candles on the windowsill consider the flameless, LED variety (they actually look really great nowadays). Always put candles in holders so they can’t fall over, spread flammable wax, or burn all the way down and ignite the surface they’re on. Be aware that tea lights – the kind with metal cups – can get extremely hot and melt right through plastic surfaces like TVs or bathtubs. You’re likely to want to light candles at night, but try to avoid doing it while sleepy or after drinking. The risk of dozing off is just too high.

When it comes to cigarettes, take care to ensure they’re fully stubbed out and never smoke in bed or even under a blanket. Cigarettes only cause about 1-in-20 fires, but tragically, about 22% of fire-related deaths. Be very careful when smoking after drinking.

“Electrical distribution” fires are one outlier that you might not have considered, accounting for around 12% of all house fires. Electrical distribution refers to the cabling around your home, including your “fuse box” – known in the trade as a “consumer unit”. If the connections in the consumer unit aren’t made very tightly, or if corrosion or vibration causes them to become loose, the high electrical resistance causes heat and eventually fire. As of 2016, new consumer units were only allowed to be made from metal to help contain the fire. If you’ve still got the older plastic kind consider getting a quote from your electrician to replace it with an “18th Edition” unit. They’re often found under the stairs in UK homes… alongside spare plastic bags, cardboard boxes, coats, and all sorts of other potential tinder.

Elsewhere, take care not to overload sockets (power strips plugged into power strips is a very bad idea). Always fully unroll the retractable, reel-type cords so that heat doesn’t build up. If you’re plugging several things into the same socket, use a socket calculator to work out the total power consumption and make sure it’s within safe limits. If you regularly find yourself needing to use extension cords you should consider just getting an electrician to install some extra outlets where you need them. You can get them to sort out your plastic consumer unit at the same time(!). If the breakers on your consumer unit regularly trip, take it seriously – they’re there to protect you.

A closing note on fire alarms.

The focus of this guide is on preventing fires, and fire alarms don’t technically prevent fires. But they are hugely important in raising the alarm and ensuring everyone gets out safely. We’ve seen from some of the referenced studies that modern house fires can reach an uncontrollable “flashover” state in just five minutes, and that floors and ceilings can start collapsing in 12. We’re not trying to scaremonger, but in some modern homes you really don’t have long. Prevention is the best tactic. Alarms are the second.

But in nearly a third of UK house fires, the fire alarm simply didn’t go off. In 19% of those instances the battery was either flat, or removed. A really common way this happens is where smoke detectors are fitted in areas with high humidity – outside bathrooms, or near kitchens. Smoke detectors can’t distinguish between smoke and steam; they just count particles in the air. When situated in high-humidity areas they constantly false-trigger, homeowners eventually remove the batteries… and join the ranks of the statistics above. Use heat sensors in these areas instead to ensure a reliable service.

In 47% of cases, there simply wasn’t a smoke detector in the area where the fire started. Strongly consider fitting them in every room. As an absolute minimum, fit one on every floor – taking extra care to ensure you’d hear them if you were asleep in bed. Ideally fit interconnected smoke alarms (i.e., if any alarm detects smoke, all alarms will go off) – this is the law for new builds and refurbishments, but your home may well predate the requirements and still have individual alarms. Modern regs also stipulate they need to be mains powered with a battery for backup. If yours are all battery powered, consider getting a quote to upgrade them all to the modern standard.

For bonus points, consider smart smoke alarms. A smart alarm can usually alert you wherever you are in the world, meaning in theory you can call the fire service from a beach in the Maldives if you have to. It’s very important not to waste emergency service resources, so you’d want to confirm the situation visually via a smart camera, or have a neighbour put eyes on it before dialling 999.

Smart alarms prompt you to test them regularly; they can remind you to replace the battery in smarter ways than the traditional chirp (an email when you’re actually in front of your computer and able to order one, for example, or chirps that only sound during the day so you’re not tempted to pull the battery). They can send you monthly reports so you know how often you set them off, so you can move them or adjust your habits as required. Many will protect you from CO2 as well as fire; some will announce where in your home the fire has been detected for a quicker response; some even do double duty as nightlights.

Another huge perk is that they can interact with other technology in your home, so you can set up actions like “flash all of my lights, and play an alert through all of my speakers” to make sure you’re alerted, or even “turn off the following list of appliances” that could be causing the smoke. For more information on how that works, check out our guide on how to protect your home with smart technology.

Once you've upped your fire safety game, you can even get home insurance that rewards you for doing so. Why not get a quote from Hiro and add your smart smoke alarms to see how much of a difference they could make to your price?

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