US home heating fires still represent a leading cause of home fires and fatalities

Published on November 22, 2010
NFPA says basic safety precautions can minimize risk to associated fires

November 22, 2010 – As temperatures drop in the months ahead, home heating systems will fast kick into gear. However, some of the heat sources that make us feel warm and toasty also represent a leading cause of U.S. home fires and fire fatalities. According to the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)’s latest U.S. home heating fires report (PDF, 739 KB), heating equipment - primarily space heaters and fireplaces - caused an estimated 66,100 home structure fires resulting in 480 civilian deaths, 1,660 injuries and $1.1 billion in direct property damage in 2008. The estimated home heating fire total declined 0.5% from 2007.

Watch NFPA's Dan Doofus learn important lessons about home heating safety.
Lorraine Carli, NFPA’s vice president of communications, says the latest home heating fire statistics signal that while we’re seeing a downward trend, there’s still much room for improvement. “We’ve certainly witnessed some declines in home heating fire rates over the short- and long-term, which is encouraging,” says Carli. “But in spite of those gains, the actual number of home heating fires and their devastating impact on people and property each year is simply way too high. There’s still much more we can do become safer from these types of fires.”

Space heaters result in far more fires and losses than central heating devices. On average, between 2004 and 2008, fixed (stationary) and portable space heaters (excluding fireplaces, chimneys, and chimney connectors, but including wood stoves) annually accounted for one-third (32%) of reported U.S. home heating fires, four out of five (82%) associated civilian deaths, nearly two-thirds (64%) of associated civilian injuries, and half (51%) of associated direct property damage.

In addition, an estimated 15,200 reported creosote fires (23% of all home heating fires) resulted in four civilian deaths, 17 civilian injuries, and $33 million in direct property damage, on average, each year from 2004-2008. Creosote is a sticky, oily, combustible substance created when wood does not burn completely. It rises into the chimney as a liquid and deposits on the chimney wall. It’s suspected that most creosote fires combine “failure-to-clean” fires that were confined to a chimney or flue, or involved solid-fueled space heaters, fireplaces, chimneys and chimney connectors.

Half (49%) of all home heating fires occurred in December, January and February, with most heating equipment fires starting due to a failure to clean equipment (25%), placing a heat source too close to combustibles (14%), and unclassified mechanical failures or malfunctions (13%). The leading cause of home heating fire deaths (52%) was heating equipment being placed too close to things that can burn, such as upholstered furniture, clothing, mattress, or bedding.

“Because home heating fires are largely the result of human error, the majority of them are preventable,” says Carli. “By following basic safety precautions and making some simple modifications and adjustments, people can greatly reduce their risk.”

As everyone prepares for the upcoming heating season, NFPA offers the following advice to stay warm and fire-safe: 

  • All heaters need space. Keep things that can burn, such as paper, bedding or furniture, at least 3 feet away from heating equipment.
  • Use heating equipment that has the label of a recognized testing laboratory.
  • Install stationary space heating equipment, water heaters or central heating equipment according to the local codes and manufacturer’s instruction. Have a qualified professional install the equipment.
  • Make sure all fuel-burning equipment is vented to the outside to avoid carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. CO is created when fuels burn incompletely. CO poisoning can cause illness and even death.
  • Make sure the venting for exhaust is kept clear and unobstructed. This includes removal of snow around the outlet to the outside.
  • Install and maintain carbon monoxide alarms inside your home to provide early warning of carbon monoxide.
  • Maintain heating equipment and chimneys by having them cleaned and inspected annually by a qualified professional.
  • Turn space heaters off when you leave a room or go to sleep.

In an effort to reduce winter fires, NFPA is partnering with the U.S. Fire Administration on a special campaign – Put a Freeze on Winter Fires. For more information, visit NFPA’s website at

About the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
NFPA is a worldwide leader in providing fire, electrical, building, and life safety to the public since 1896. The mission of the international nonprofit organization is to reduce the worldwide burden of fire and other hazards on the quality of life by providing and advocating consensus codes and standards, research, training, and education.

Contact: Lorraine Carli, Public Affairs Office: +1 617 984-7275