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Practicing Winter Fire Safety

Contributor: John Schulz, MD, PhD
9 minute read
A child and her father play in front of a fireplace.

There’s nothing like cozying up to a crackling fire on a cold night. The winter months can be challenging for many reasons, including seasonal depression linked to less daylight, and falling temperatures that make it difficult to stay warm when there’s a storm or a deep freeze. It’s no wonder many people seek out the warmth of a home fire or the glow of candles to brighten up their winter nights.

Unfortunately, this increased use of fireplaces, candles, and electrical appliances also means house fires and carbon monoxide poisonings are most common during winter months. Learn how to keep your family safe this winter with tips from John Schulz, MD, PhD, a Mass General Brigham surgeon and medical director of the Burn Center at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Fire safety tips

“It’s absolutely essential that people have working smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors in their homes,” says Dr. Schulz. Smoke alarms should be installed on each floor of your home, including the basement, and one inside every bedroom. Smoke detectors can be hardwired into a home’s electrical system or battery-operated, in which case the batteries should be tested regularly. A good time to remember to do this is when the time changes in the spring and fall. If batteries need to be replaced, make sure to use the correct type for the make and model of your smoke detector.

Every family should have a fire escape plan and review it regularly. “Some dwellings are more complex than others, but it’s essential that everyone in the family knows how they’re going to get out of the house, who’s responsible for helping the younger members of the family, and where you’re going to meet once you get outside,” Dr. Schulz explains.

If a fire does happen, leave immediately according to your escape plan and leave all belongings behind. Your safety matters more than any of your possessions. 

Preventing electrical fires

If your home needs electrical work, it’s best use a professional electrician to make sure everything is up to code. Never plug heat-generating appliances, like space heaters or toaster ovens, into a power strip or an extension cord, and don’t overload outlets.

Prevention guidelines say to keep young children at least 3 feet away from the stove. I think a better guideline, if possible, is to keep children out of the kitchen altogether when things are cooking.

John Schulz, MD, PhD
Surgeon and Medical Director, Mass General Burn Center
Mass General Brigham

Safety in the kitchen

Many fires start in the kitchen. “You can imagine a busy family, with the parents cooking and the kids running around the house, and it’s easy for something to happen,” says Dr. Schulz. “Prevention guidelines say to keep young children at least 3 feet away from the stove. I think a better guideline, if possible, is to keep children out of the kitchen altogether when things are cooking.”

Whether you’re an experienced chef or barely able to make a piece of toast, remember the following:

To prevent kitchen fires and burns:

  • Keep a fire extinguisher in a spot where anyone can access it easily.

  • Never leave the stove unattended while you’re cooking.

  • Use the stove’s back burners whenever possible and keep all pan handles pointed inwards so that children are less likely to knock them over or grab them.

  • Keep any flammables, like napkins or dishtowels, away from the stovetop.

  • Don’t wear long, loose sleeves when cooking. They can easily catch fire. If your clothes do catch fire, remember the classic safety phrase—stop, drop, and roll.

  • If cooking food in a disposable aluminum foil tray, be careful when removing it from the oven and support it from the bottom so that hot contents don’t spill.

If a fire starts on the stove:

  • Avoid moving the pan or pot that’s on fire.

  • Put a lid on the pan or pot. Don’t pour water on it, especially if there’s grease inside. The contents can splash, causing burns or the fire to spread. Instead, put a lid on the pan and turn off the burner.

If a fire starts in the oven:

  • Turn the oven off and keep the door closed. Without oxygen, the fire will burn out.

  • Make sure oven mitts are dry before handling any hot handles.

  • Take care when using appliances like deep fat fryers and pressure cookers. Make sure to read and follow the instructions carefully.

Heating safety

Every heat source needs a safety perimeter of at least 3 feet, including space heaters, radiators, indoor fireplaces, and outdoor fire pits. If you have young children or pets, consider installing a safety gate.

“My public service announcement is to encourage people not to drink alcoholic beverages around a fire pit or a bonfire,” says Dr. Schulz. “That’s another continual source of injuries we see in the burn unit. People love gathering around an open fire, but after a couple drinks, they get clumsy and don’t pay enough attention, and really regret it.”

Before going to bed for the night, make sure all fires are properly put out.

Candle safety

“Candles should never burn unobserved or near other flammables, and they should be very securely placed so that they can’t be knocked over,” explains Dr. Schulz. “I’ve had patients burned from candles in all sorts of situations, but a falling candle can also cause a house fire.”

It’s also very important to keep matches, lighters, and candles away from children. All candles should be snuffed out before going to bed.

Carbon monoxide safety

Carbon monoxide is an invisible, odorless gas. It’s produced when fossil fuels are burned, such as in a generator or fireplace. Carbon monoxide exposure can be deadly.

“There have been some very tragic carbon monoxide deaths during the winter months that could have easily been prevented,” Dr. Schulz explains. Similarly to smoke detectors, each home should have working carbon monoxide detectors. Here’s how to keep your family safe from poisoning:

  • Make sure your heating system, water heater, and any other oil, gas, or coal appliances are properly serviced and maintained.

  • Never bring a generator or open flame cooking device inside your home.

  • Make sure your stove, fireplace, and chimney are properly cleaned and vented.

Safety summary

Make sure all members of your family and household are aware of these safety tips before you snuggle up in front of the fire, cook a meal together, or light your favorite scented candle. If everyone keeps these pointers in mind, you can greatly reduce the risk of fires.

John Schulz, MD, PhD


Surgeon and Medical Director, Mass General Burn Center