One of the most viewed articles here on Culinary Lore is: How Hot Does Cooking Oil Need to Be Before It Catches Fire? I also consider it the most important. It provides not only the information the title promises but also some very important fire safety information, particularly that which applies to home cooking fires.
I am gratified to know that the article saved at least one person from terrible damage to her kitchen. A lady contacted me to let me know that she had a fire on her stove, but she had just happened to have read the article, so she didn’t panic, and knew what to do. Instead of major damage, it was minor. And, more importantly, no one was hurt. This, needless to say, made me feel very good and very humbled. But it occurred to me, what if she had needed to use her fire extinguisher and had not known how, or had used it improperly? Could she had made matters worse? And, could she have caused injury to herself or others? The answer is yes to both questions. So, I felt my mission was not complete until I wrote an in-depth article about how to properly use your home fire extinguisher.
How to avoid home cooking fires, whether from over-heated oil or other sources, is a focus of the first article, but also how to deal with a grease fire once it starts. As important as I think this information is, it may also be dangerous. The decision of whether you should deal with a fire yourself, or call 911, may be as important as how to deal with the fire. And, this decision must be made in seconds…a decision that can prevent you or your loved-ones from being injured or even killed.
So, it is equally important to point out that many fire-related injuries occur when people try to fight home fires themselves. Several techniques are mentioned for extinguishing grease fires, including a lid, a fire blanket, and fire extinguishers. Fire extinguishers are the most often recommended, but although many people have fire extinguishers in their home, few know how to use them properly. If used incorrectly, a fire extinguisher can spread a fire, rather than extinguish it, and even cause the user to be injured.
Modern fire extinguishers designed for home use will often have simple pictorial instructions on the proper use of the device, which are now required by law. Should a fire occur, you will not have time to read the label of your extinguisher, so familiarize yourself with the instructions now.
When to Use a Fire Extinguisher
Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast data on when it is best to use a fire extinguisher, or even whether you should use one at all. As good as fire extinguishers are, they may not always be the best choice. As explained in the article mentioned above, when cooking fires occur but have not yet spread beyond the cooking pan, a lid or a fire blanket may be a better choice. Other recommendations are pouring salt or baking soda on the fire, but the effectiveness and safety of these are questionable. When used properly, a tight-fitting lid will smother most pan fires immediately. Follow the instructions given in the article. Don’t panic! And, when in doubt, call the fire department and get away from the fire.
Although home fire extinguishers are only meant for small fires, they may be best when the fire is too large to safely smother by any of the above means. Remember that even a fire that seems controllable can put out very high levels of heat, up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, making it extremely hazardous to get too close to them. Your skin could be scorched, and your lungs could be severely damaged by breathing in super-heated air. Since a fire extinguisher can be used from around 10 feet away, they may be a safer choice for some larger, but not out of control, fires. Regardless, a home extinguisher is only good for around one minute of use, and although this actually is a lot, it does not give you the power of the fire department! You must remain calm and use your judgment if a fire ever occurs in your home. If in doubt, leave it to your firefighters.
Test Your Fire Extinguisher!
Modern fire extinguishers, most often, are meant to be used and then recycled. They are not refilled by the user. Many of us may have had a fire extinguisher on hand for many years and never had to use it. If your fire extinguisher is rated an A, B, and C fire extinguisher, it will contain a pressurized powder. This powder will not really “expire” but it will settle over time and cake together at the bottom of the unit. If this happens, the unit would not work when you needed it to. However, all you need to do is periodically turn the extinguisher upside down and upright again several times to “fluff” the powder and prevent it from being caked. You extinguisher should have a gauge at the top indicating how full it is. As long as this gauge is in the green, your unit should be fine. Still, you may want to test your fire extinguisher, periodically.
Basic Fire Extinguisher Use for Home Cooking Fires
To use a portable fire extinguisher, remember the acronym P.A.S.S.
P = pull the pin
A = aim the nozzle at the BASE of the fire
S = squeeze the handle
S = sweep back and forth along the base of the fire until it is out
When putting out a fire with a portable extinguisher, you should initially stand about 10 feet away from the fire. If you are not sure how far away you are, and you are initially too far away, just stop spraying and move closer. It is better to start out too far away than get too close to the fire, and you should start only at the maximum distance necessary for the spray to contact the fire. If you are standing too close, it is possible to have fuel from the fire splash back onto you.
As you begin, stay low, and begin spraying back and forth at the base of the fire, and when the fire begins to be extinguished, if needed, move slowly toward the fire to better direct the spray and finish putting out the fire. In general, stay as far away from the fire as possible while still being able to spray it with the extinguisher material.
Once the fire is completely out back away while keeping your eyes on the source of the fire to make sure it does not reignite. As explained in the previous article, combustible liquids, once they are hot enough can reignite. Even after the fire appears to be extinguished, it can flare back up. So, never turn you back on a fire! Make sure it is out and stays out. The fire extinguisher, if it is of the A,B,C powder type, will not cool the material.
If you have a stove-top fire with an open gas flame, the flame itself will probably be put out by the extinguisher, along with the fire. Once you know that it is safe to do so, or as instructed by the fire department, turn off the gas to burner. An electric stove is of special concern since the source of heat will remain even after the fire is extinguished, making a flare-up even more likely.
If the fire is not affected or is only minimally affected by the extinguisher, do not move any closer and get out of the room quickly.
The video below contains a fire-extinguisher safety course given at Lakeland Community College (home of a Fire Science program) with the Kirtland, Ohio Fire Department and Lakeland Community College Police Department. The presentation is given by Captain Doug Bode. Captain Bode recommends that if you should have to use a fire extinguisher, then you should always activate 911, in case there fire is smoldering somewhere out of site, and for help dealing with smoke and other toxic fumes.
Pulling the Pin
Your fire extinguisher is not a hand grenade. The pin inserted in the handle is only there to prevent the handle being squeezed. When you pull the pin, nothing will happen until you actually squeeze the handle. You do not need to be afraid of it. Also, should you ever have to use your extinguisher, remember that replacement pins are readily available and can easily be replaced. Do not waste precious seconds making sure you place the pin in your pocket or in some other safe place. On the Amerex extinguisher (a rechargeable unit), and many others, the pin is connected by a chain, so it is of no concern.
Where to Keep Your Fire Extinguisher
Ideally, your fire extinguisher should be mounted on a wall, or within easy reaching distance near a door. For example, your kitchen extinguisher should be located near your kitchen door. NEVER store a fire extinguisher, as most people do, under the kitchen sink. Most likely, storing it under the sink or in any other low cabinet will require you to be in the vicinity of the fire while getting your hands on the unit.
The reason you extinguisher should be near the door or any other point of egress is so that, once you go to get the extinguisher, if you look back at the fire and decide that it has become too big and spread too far for you to handle, you are already at the exit point and can immediately leave the vicinity of the fire.
Common Fire Extinguisher Mistakes
- Spraying Over the Fire: As you can see in the video above, many of the participants in the class had a hard time obeying Captain Bode’s instructions regarding spraying the base of the fire. Most people tend to think that they should be directing the spray on top of the fire. This is completely ineffective. The base of the fire is where the real business of burning occurs and this is where you must direct the spray.
- Mixing different types of extinguishers: Hopefully, you will never need to use more than one fire extinguisher, and if one unit is not enough to put out the fire, you should be calling the fire department! However, perhaps you will want to have more than one unit on hand so that you and another person could potentially spray a fire together, when feasible. If you do have more than one fire extinguisher you need to make sure that they are all the same type.
- Mixing dry powder extinguisher with a wet chemical extinguisher may cause interference. They are not meant to be used together. Even a powder type may be different than a unit made by a different manufacturer. So, if you need more than one unit, buy multiples of the same exact unit from the same manufacturer, to be safe.
If a fire should occur in your home, or if any other emergency occurs, you should never hesitate to dial 911 and activate emergency services. Many people consider this to be a last resort. It is NOT. Knowing the information given here, and even being prepared for a fire and other emergency situations, is no guarantee. Now matter whether you know the proper use of a fire extinguisher or not, there is absolutely no guarantee that you will be able to successfully put on a fire in your home. Never take this type of information, or your own preparation, as a substitute for professional help. Your fire department exists to protect you from harm.