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Causes and Effects of domestic Fires:

Fire outbreaks and disasters are caused by many factors, some of which can be blamed on ourselves and others are beyond our control.

A good knowledge of fire, its characteristics and behaviour will enable one to identify any possible fire risks in our homes and enhance our abilities to prepare and to prevent them from occurring and spreading.

Fire in its most common form can result in an inferno, which has the potential to cause physical damage through burning. The negative effects of fire include hazard to life and property, atmospheric pollution, and water contamination.

Fire has been used by humans since time immemorial. It has been used in rituals, in agriculture for clearing land, for cooking, generating heat and light, for signaling, propulsion purposes, smelting, forging, incineration of waste, cremation, and as a weapon or mode of destruction.

Fires start when a inflammable or a combustible material, in combination with a sufficient quantity of oxygen gas or another oxygen-rich compound  is exposed to a source of heat or ambient temperature above the flash point. Fire cannot exist without these elements in place and in the right proportions. For example, an inflammable liquid will start burning only if the fuel and oxygen are in the right proportions.

 Simply put, fire requires fuel, oxygen and heat to burn. These three form what is called the Fire Triangle also known as or combustion triangles or ″fire diamond″.

The fire Triangle

The first element in the fire triangle is heat, which is perhaps the most essential of fire elements. A fire cannot ignite unless it has a certain amount of heat, and it cannot grow without heat either. One of the first things firefighters do to extinguish a fire is to apply a cooling agent — usually water to the heat source.

The flame created by burning keeps the fuel at the ignition temperature, so it continues to burn if there is fuel and oxygen around it. The flame heats any surrounding substances and releases fuel and gases in the process. When the flame ignites the gases, the fire spreads.

Once ignited, a chain reaction must take place whereby fires can sustain their own heat by the further release of heat energy in the process of combustion and may propagate, provided there is a continuous supply of an oxygen and fuel.

This chain reaction added to the Fire Triangle develops into a Fire Tetrahedron and it is this chain reaction is that keeps the fire burning and spreading.

A tetrahedron can be described as a pyramid which is a solid having four plane faces.

Fire Tetrahedron

To stop the spread of a fire therefore, one of these elements must be removed, that is the tetrahedron must be broken. Elimination of any of these elements will extinguish any fire no matter how intense it is. 

 For example, a flame such as from a stove burner can be stopped by any of the following actions:

  • Turning
  • Covering the flame completely, which smothers the flame as the combustion both uses the available oxygen and displaces it from the area around the flame with Carbon dioxide.
  • Application of water, which removes heat from the fire faster than the fire can produce it similarly, blowing hard on a flame will displace the heat of the currently burning gas from its fuel source, to the same end, or
  • Application of a retardant chemical such as Halon to the flame, which retards the chemical reaction itself until the rate of combustion is too slow to maintain the chain reaction.

Causes of Domestic Fires:

Fire in homes can start suddenly and spread quickly, destroying the home, the contents and other surrounding properties and putting lives in danger.

Domestic fires are caused in a variety of ways and the fueling agents are abundant with open flames common and combustible items everywhere.  This makes most of homes to be extremely hazardous places.

However, with common sense and a little planning, we can make our homes safe.

This will be possible if we know what causes the fires and what to do in case of one.

The major causes of domestic fires are:

  • Carelessness
  • Arson
  • Lightning


  Carelessness as Cause of Fire:

One of the causes of fire outbreaks/disasters is carelessness. This happens when fire is not taken seriously by the person handling it. Some careless behaviors that can cause fire outbreaks include:

  • Faulty electrical wiring: This is one of the main causes of fire disasters, and is very common in domestic households. Most house holders, to save on costs; will opt to use thin cables in places where thicker cables ought to be used. This will cause overheating, which can ignite the insulation and spark off a fire disaster.  Some signs of bad wiring are:
    • Lights dim if you use another appliance;
    • For an appliance to work, you must disconnect another;
    • Fuses blow or trip the circuit frequently.

To deal with this cause of fire, ensure that certified electrical engineers are employed to supervise the wiring and inspection to ensure that it is in good condition carried out regularly.

  • Electrical Equipment: An electrical appliance, such as a toaster can start a fire if it is faulty or has a frayed cord. A power point that is overloaded with double adapter plugs can cause a fire from an overuse of electricity. A power point extension cord can also be a fire hazard if not used appropriately.
  • Cooking Equipment: Pots and pans can overheat and cause a fire very easily if the person cooking gets distracted and leaves cooking unattended. Always stay in the room, or ask someone to watch your food, when cooking on hotplates.

Falling asleep while you are cooking can also cause a fire outbreak, as much as is possible avoid cooking when you are tired.

  •  Leaving rubbish and trees near your house: This may attract bush fire especially during the dry seasons of the year.
  • Careless use of candles and other naked flames:  Candles look and smell nice, but if left unattended can cause domestic fires. Avoid the use of candles for lighting as much as possible; and if you must use them, then keep them away from any obviously flammable items such as books and tissue boxes. Always blow a candle out before leaving a room.
  • Fire Works: Irresponsible use of fireworks can cause fire outbreaks. Fireworks should be aimed only at the skies, as aiming them in any other direction can cause a fire disaster. The fireworks may hit an inflammable substance and cause an explosion that will start a fire disaster.
  • Flammable Liquids:  Domestic house holders bring into their houses and garages for use flammable liquids such as kerosene, methylated liquids and petrol.

Storing these flammable substances around the house is extremely dangerous. They must be kept away from heat sources and it is important to check the label and storage requirements before storing.

The best way is to avoid keeping kerosene or petrol in the house, but if you must, then store them in a sealed metal container, made for the purpose not in plastic jerrycan!

During use, the user should be careful when pouring the liquids. Pouring kerosene into the kerosene tank of the kerosene lamp while the kerosene lamp is lit may cause an explosion that can ignite a fire.

  •  Smoking: Smoking is the leading cause of domestic fires. A cigarette butt that is not put out properly can stay alight for a few hours and can cause a flame if it comes into contact with flammable materials, such as furniture.

Smoking is especially risky in the bedrooms where there are several items of clothing and beddings which can easily catch fire. Bedrooms are best kept off limits for smoking. Fires started in the bedroom make up 73% of all house fire fatalities.

  • Curious Children: Children can cause a fire out of curiosity, to see what would happen if they set fire to an object.

Keep any matches or lighters out of reach of children, to avoid any curiosity turned disaster.

  • Barbeques and grills are great for an outdoor meal, but should always be done away from the home, table cloths or any plants and tree branches.
  • Lighting: Lamp shades and light fittings can build up heat if they are very close to light bulbs and lamp bases can become a hazard if they are able to be knocked over easily.
  • Poor awareness of what fire is and how it can be prevented has led to a lot of domestic fire outbreak. Being ignorant of firefighting gadgets will make one to ignore gadgets that can save property during a fire outbreak. Ignorance will also make one to be compromised while buying electrical appliances, fittings and wiring.

Arson as a cause of fire:

Arson is defined as a malicious burning of the property of another. The house can be set on fire during a riot, strike or social unrest.  Arson and intentional fires mostly occur outside, but most of the associated deaths, injuries, and losses occur in structures, particularly in homes.

Fire outbreaks due to arson are often beyond the householder’s control. However, one’s political and religious views may make the householder’s property a target for arsonist

Lightening as a cause of fire:

Lightening can cause fire outbreaks. This can be prevented by installation of lighting arresters.

By Kenneth Obong’o Oballa

Training Manager, Zep-Re,

 (PTA Reinsurance Company).



Safety Measures in the Home:

The major sources of domestic fires are:

  • Cooking
  • Heating and
  • Use of Electrical gadgets.

Domestic fires cause destruction to household properties and loss of life. Most of fire fatalities occur in the home and of these fatalities the highest percentage is the among the elderly.

Prevention is the best way to protect your family from fire. However, in the event of a fire, preparation becomes the key to making certain your family responds appropriately and safely.

The following are the central issues in safeguarding you and your home from fire:

  • Take sensible safety measures around your home to avoid fire hazards.
  • Install at least one smoke alarm on each floor level (for optimum use the smoke alarm on each floor should be located on the ceiling and should be checked regularly)
  • Decide on a fire escape plan, and practice it regularly.

Smoke alarms/heat detectors

Make sure your home is equipped with enough smoke alarms and heat detectors to provide early detection of a fire so that your family has enough time to escape safely.

Fire extinguishers

  • Place several fire extinguishers throughout your home, in accessible locations.
  • Make sure that family members know where all fire extinguishers are located.
  • Make sure the family members know the various types of extinguishers and their use for the type of fire.
  • Make sure extinguishers are well labelled.

Sprinkler systems

Consider installing sprinkler systems when building or remodeling.

Safety plan

  • Plan at least two escape routes from each room.
  • Establish a family meeting place outside the home for everyone to gather in the case of a fire.
  • Practice fire drills, especially for young children. Provide instruction as follows:
  • Crawl on the floor – heat and smoke rise.
  • Don’t open any door without first feeling it for heat. Never touch the handle, as it may be extremely hot. If the door is hot, don’t open it; use an alternative exit route.
  • Go directly to the prearranged meeting place.
  • Never return into a burning building to retrieve toys, pets, etc.


The number one cause of fire in the home is cooking and the kitchen is where more home fires occur than anywhere else in the house.

Cooking is inevitable and to prevent the occurrences of the numerous fires, the following precautions need to be taken by the house owner:

  • Never leave cooking food unattended, especially when frying, grilling or boiling food. If you must leave the kitchen, turn off the stove.
  • Check your food regularly while cooking and remain in the home while cooking.
  • Use a timer so you’ll remember that the stove or oven is on.
  • Never overheat cooking oil because it can spontaneously ignite and create a large flame.
  • Always have a fire blanket on a wall in the kitchen.
  • Have a small powder type fire extinguisher, preferably 2kg in the kitchen and learn how to use it. If possible get a security provider to train you on home fire safety.

  • Never use a water extinguisher on a fire caused by fat. You will spread the fire and increase its intensity as burning oil floats on water. The water will transport the fire elsewhere.
  • Always disconnect the gas cylinder after cooking and ensure that the gas hose is secured tight with clips to prevent leakage.
  • Avoid d keeping kerosene or petrol in the house, but if you must, store them in a sealed metal container, made for the purpose not in plastic jerrycan!
    • Don’t wear loose clothing or dangling sleeves while cooking.
    •  Keep the children away from the cooking area. Enforce a “kid-free zone” and make them stay at least three feet away from the stove.
    • Keep anything that can catch fire - pot holders, oven mitts, wooden utensils, paper or plastic bags, food packaging, and towels or curtains—away from your stove, oven or any other appliance in the kitchen that generates heat.
    • Clean cooking surfaces on a regular basis to prevent grease buildup.
    • Always check the kitchen before going to bed or leaving the home to make sure all stoves, ovens, and small appliances are turned off.
    • Fit an automatic alarm system in your house. One zone can be used for fire detection and can keep your house safe even when you are away, or asleep.
    • Install a smoke alarm near your kitchen, on each level of your home, near sleeping areas, and inside and outside bedrooms if you sleep with doors closed. Use the test button to check it each month. Replace all batteries at least once a year. It is preferable to fit network smoke detectors so that your alarm systems are activated if a fire breaks out.


Heating equipment is the second most common cause of home fires and fatalities.  Safety is especially important when choosing and using heating products.

The following precautions should be taken when heating appliances are used in the homes.

  • Keep portable heaters at least one meter away from any object that could easily catch fire such as furniture, curtains, laundry, clothes and even yourself. If you have a furnace, get it inspected once a year to make sure it is working to safety standards.
  • All fuel-burning appliances use up fresh air as they burn, and give off waste gases including the deadly carbon monoxide (CO). Never block air vents or airbricks and service appliances. Be aware of symptoms of Carbon Monoxide (CO) poisoning such as drowsiness and flu like symptoms.
  • If you use a chimney or flue, or bring one back into use, have it swept at least once a year, or more frequently if you burn wood.
  • Never block any outside grilles or rest anything against it.
  • If a gas flame, which normally burns blue, burns orange this may be a built up of carbon monoxide. Have your appliance checked immediately.
  • Check the pilot regularly on gas cookers and water heaters to make sure it has not gone out.
  • When buying gas appliances look for the standards Safety mark or Seal of Approval and beware of second hand bargains and cowboy installers.
  • If you suspect a gas leak, open the windows, turn off the supply and call your gas supplier. Don't operate switches as a spark could ignite the gas.
  • Always keep a special watch on young children and elderly people when fires and heaters are in use.

Use of Electricity

Many accidents and fatalities in the home involve electricity and therefore it must be treated with respect.

Safety is especially important when choosing and using the electrical appliances. It is extremely important that wiring is properly done using the right quality of wires and materials.

The following precautions should be taken regarding use of electricity in the homes.

  • Ensure that electrical installations are up to standard. They should be inspected annually by a certified electrician, who then places a certificate in the fuse box.
  • Ensure that fuses are correctly rated. If circuit breakers are fitted and they trip, investigate the problem and avoid the temptation to fit a larger breaker without professional advice.
  • Avoid using adaptors, but if you must use them, ensure that they are certified by the relevant Authority.
  • Do not overload extension cables or adaptors with devices such as fan heaters.
  • Do not sleep with fan heaters on. They could overheat and catch fire.
  • Do not place such devises on carpets. some carpets burn and give off highly toxic gases.
  • Do not leave immersion heaters on for long periods, and ensure that your water heater is off if your water supply has been cut because the heater can overheat and catch fire. The insulation on these tanks produces a cyanide type gas which is lethal.
  • Make sure the any water- related electrical device like a pool pump or instant hot water heater is protected by RCCD (Residual Current Circuit Device), a special circuit breaker that protects the user from electrocution. This is very important but often overlooked.
  • Have your wiring installation checked at least once every five years by an approved contractor, or straightaway if you are buying an older property
  • Do not use appliances with worn or damaged flexes.
  • Keep portable mains-operated appliances out of the bathroom.
  • If an appliance appears faulty stop using it and have it checked at once
  • Consider having a RCD (residual current device) for whole house protection. These are especially valuable when power tools are used.
  • Look for the quality mark when you buy electrical equipment
  • Never overload an electric socket.

Fire Safety Precautions

The safety precautions can be taken before fire occurrence, during occurrence and after an occurrence.

Before Fire

  • Have a plan of action and practice it. Plan your escape route. 
  • Make sure every member of the family knows what to do in case of a fire.
  • Have an assembly point, perhaps in the open grounds or in a neighbor’s house.
  • If you have small children, ensure that each child has an adult looking after them.
  • Make sure you have an escape route so that you do not get trapped.
  • Keep all fires and heaters well-guarded. For fitted or portable heaters with a built-in guard, give extra protection by adding a surrounding guard particularly if you have young children or older people in the home. For children, use a nursery guard with side clips that fit into fixed wall brackets.
  • Keep portable heaters and candles away from furniture and curtains. Place them in positions where they cannot be knocked over.
  • Don't dry or air clothes over or near the fire, or the cooker.
  • Do not smoke in bed.
  • Many fires start in the kitchen, especially fat fires. Never leave a pan unattended when deep frying and watch for overheating. For safer frying use oven chips or a thermostatically controlled deep fat fryer.
  • If there are children around, keep matches and lighters well out of reach
  • Fit approved smoke detectors on each floor. Choose a smoke alarm that is mains operated or one with a long life (ten year) battery.
  • Use all precautions to prevent ignition in potentially explosive atmospheres such as those containing flammable liquid vapors or fine particles.
  • Use non-sparking tools, and control static electricity as required.
  • Help maintain building security to prevent arson fires.

In the event of Fire

  • Leave the house immediately.
  • Only try to fight the fire with the blanket and extinguisher if it is safe to do so.
  • If you are trapped, close the door and seal it with wet towel to keep out of the smoke. Lie on the floor to find smoke free- air and cover your head with a wet towel to filter the air for breathing.
  • Make sure that your burglar proofing bars have a fire escape hatch. If you are o upper floor, buy and fit an escape ladder which can be deployed from the window.
  • Communicate by pressing the alarm panic button to summon assistance from the various providers.
  • Evacuate immediately. Never put your life at risk.
  • Remember Get out, stay out!
  • Call the fire brigade out.


The after effects of a fire is devastating and the occurrences of fires should be prevented.

The three main reasons are:

  • Moral/humane reasons:The occurrence of a fire event causes pain and stress due to the suffering of relatives and other people involved. Such occurrences should be avoided as much as possible to save everyone from pain and any accompanying agonies.
    • Economic reasons:  Occurrences of a fires result in financial expenditures and economic losses.
    • Loss of life.

By Kenneth Obong’o Oballa

Training Manager, Zep-Re,

 (PTA Reinsurance Company).

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