Today at Berkeley Lab

How a Kitchen Fire Led to Lessons Learned

By Theresa Duque

Around 10 a.m. on Memorial Day, Candace Flores was at home multitasking, something that comes second nature to this full-time administrator in the EHS Division. While doing laundry, she squeezed in some time to fry a fresh batch of lumpia – a Filipino delicacy that resembles an eggroll – so that when her husband and son came downstairs for breakfast, they’d find snacks for the day waiting for them.

This type of lumpia is deep-fried, so she filled a pan half-way with vegetable oil, covered it with a lid, set the burner to medium, and then walked away. A few minutes later, while pulling clothes from the dryer, she thought she smelled something burning. “It had been three minutes tops. Then it dawned on me that I had the pan of oil on the stove. I walked out of the laundry room, and saw smoke billowing from the pan in the kitchen,” she said.

In a panic, Flores ran toward the pan, grabbed a pot holder, and slid the pan off the burner. As soon as she moved it off the flame, the pan caught fire. “I stood there for about a second. I thought the fire would go out, but it didn’t,” she said. “So I yelled out to my husband, ‘There’s a fire!’”

Her husband ran downstairs to help, but before he reached the kitchen, the fire grew and the kitchen cabinet caught fire.

Still dressed in his pajamas, he managed to reach the fire extinguisher above the stove despite the fire beneath it. But when he pulled the pin, the fire extinguisher was dead. “By this point, the house was filling up with smoke,” Flores said.

Luckily, the spare fire extinguisher they kept in the garage still worked. While he desperately rushed to put out the fire, Flores ran upstairs to wake her son. “I told him, ‘Get the dog and go outside!” she said. Flores also had to evacuate their four parakeets. “By the time I grabbed the bird cage, I wasn’t able to see the kitchen within 12 feet of where I was standing,” she said.

Thanks to her husband’s quick thinking, the fire was contained, but smoke still billowed from the attic of their two-story home, spurring their neighbors to call 911.

Flores estimates that the firefighters arrived no more than 15 minutes after she had poured oil in the pan. “At the Lab’s Safety Fair, there was a demonstration that showed how quickly a fire can get out of hand and fill your house up with smoke that reduces visibility. I know from personal experience that it’s true,” she said.

Once the firefighters confirmed that the fire was out, and that the flames hadn’t reached the attic, they reviewed the incident, and instructed Flores and her family on a few important lessons in fire prevention. “They told us to turn the gas off before you move the pan. If I had turned the burner off before moving the pan, this probably wouldn’t have happened,” she said.

Soot on wall of Flores family home. {Credit: Candace Flores)

Kitchen hood damaged in fire. (Credit: Candace Flores)

She and her family escaped the fire unscathed, but once the smoke settled, they still had to deal with the damage to their home. “The entire first floor was covered in a thick black soot, not just the kitchen,” she said. The kitchen hood and cabinets were also completely destroyed. “The flames had gotten so high that they melted the hood!” Flores added.

“From now on, I will never walk away from the stove, even if I have it on low. And we now have notifications on our phone to check our fire extinguishers once a month to make sure they’re charged,” she said. “I’m so thankful that my husband was there, because I panicked. If he wasn’t there, who knows what would have happened?”

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Safety Tips From the Lab’s Fire Inspector

What happened to Flores could have happened to anybody. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), more than 350,000 home structure fires occur every year, with kitchen fires accounting for nearly half of them. That is approximately one fire every 90 seconds.

So what should you do in case your kitchen flame turns into a kitchen fire?

According to Lab Fire Inspector Mike Torkelson, the best way to put out a small kitchen fire is to first turn off the burner, slide a lid over the pan to smother the flames, and leave the pan covered until it is completely cooled.

Your first instinct might be to extinguish a grease fire with water, but that would only make it worse, said Torkelson. “The water would likely boil, and the grease would splash, potentially burning you and causing the fire to get bigger. On the other hand, small grease fires can be extinguished with salt or baking soda, but not flour, because flour may cause an explosion,” he explained.

He also recommends keeping a Class ABC fire extinguisher handy in an accessible location near the kitchen exit, and not above the stove. In all cases, “The best practice is to call 911, even if the fire is extinguished,” he said.

And the best way to prevent a kitchen fire? “Don’t leave something cooking on the stove unattended,” Torkelson added.

If you want to learn more, Protective Services offers free fire extinguisher training to Lab employees. And on October 10, during Fire Prevention Week, Protective Services will host the Fire Safety House Trailer; additional details will be available soon. NFPA cooking safety tips are available here.

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