Author(s): Birgitte Messerschmidt. Published on September 1, 2020.

Slow Burn

While cooking fires rarely make headlines, the global losses add up to a problem that demands our full attention


Understandably, large disasters with a significant number of casualties usually receive the most attention from media and researchers. When those events occur, researchers mobilize to find out what went wrong and why, so that codes and standards, if necessary, can be updated to prevent them from happening again. As a result, catastrophes with high numbers of fatalities are rare in countries where standards are continuously evolving.

While this approach has many positives, it also contains some major blind spots. To our detriment, researchers and the public tend to overlook the smaller, everyday incidents that may impact only a few people at a time, but can add up like a million papercuts into a huge societal problem. The most prominent example is home cooking fires, which is the theme of this year’s NFPA Fire Prevention Week. While deaths, injuries, and property loss from cooking fires have become a major global problem, the topic gets relatively scant attention.

Amazingly, even as the United States has reduced fire-related deaths in almost every major category, deaths from home cooking fires are the exception—they are worse today than 30 years ago. According to the latest report from NFPA Research, between 2014 and 2018 an annual average of 550 people died in the US due to fires started by cooking, making it the second-leading cause of home fire death behind smoking materials. By comparison, between 1980 and 1984, 500 people died from cooking fires per year. What’s more, cooking is now the leading cause of both reported home fires and home fire injuries in the US. We have to do better.

Recent research performed at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) emphasizes the significant hazards from unattended cooking, which is the leading cause of cooking fires, according to NFPA. Researchers put 150 grams of cooking oil (about 2/3 cup) in a 9.7 cm (3.8-inch) diameter pot and left it heating on a stovetop. Eventually the oil ignited, causing a flame with a height of almost 1 meter (3 feet), tall enough to reach combustible cabinets above the stove. The heat release rate of the cooking oil fire was more than three times as intense as a fire caused by igniting the same amount of gasoline in the same size cooking pot.

So, what can we do? One option is to require the installation of home fire sprinklers, which can control the fire or even extinguish it. Another potential solution is to prevent fires from happening in the first place by incorporating cooktop ignition prevention technology. That was the aim in 2014 when the Fire Protection Research Foundation led a project sponsored by NIST on the potential effectiveness of various technologies to reduce cooking fires. The work informed the technical basis for changes to UL 858, Household Electric Ranges Standard for Safety, to prevent cooktop ignition during unattended cooking.

While the change to UL 858 was a great step forward, it applies only to electric coil cooktops, and therefore only addresses a part of the problem. In China, Japan, and South Korea, however, research, standards, and regulations have focused more on gas-fueled cooktops. Information from Japan indicates that deaths from cooking fires were reduced by almost 40 percent in the five years following the introduction of regulations on gas cooktops. Other countries should take notice and look at adopting similar lifesaving measures.

We need to act with urgency—the 10-plus people who die every week in cooking fires are people whose lives can be saved. These fires deserve our attention, and they require researchers working with industry leaders to develop technologies, standards, and regulations that will make this scourge a thing of the past.


Birgitte Messerschmidt is the director of applied research at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler