Emergency Situation: You are volunteering at a soup kitchen this winter. As you’re setting out plates, you begin to smell smoke — then a cry of “Fire!” sounds from the kitchen. Racing in, you see not one but two kitchen fires: Smoke is pouring out of the oven, and something on the cooktop is alight. What should you do?
Solution: In case of a kitchen fire (or fires), there are some well-established survival steps to take. Assuming the fires are confined to the oven and range, there’s no need to panic and call the fire department — yet. The vast majority of oven fires can be safely extinguished by closing the oven door. Just put on oven mitts and quickly close the door, then turn off the oven. Assuming the oven’s seal is still good, the available oxygen will quickly be expended, and the fire will burn itself out.
Do not — repeat, do not — open the door “just for a peek” to check the status of the fire. Leave the door closed. Smoke is likely to pour out of the oven vents for at least a few minutes, so open a window (and window screen, if one is present). If the fire does not burn itself out, read about extinguisher usage below.
The fire on the range is going to be a little trickier. Virtually all cooktop fires are grease fires, which cannot be extinguished with plain water.
Put (or keep) your oven mitts on. Next, carefully turn off the burners. Then locate the lid to the pot/pan containing the fire. Holding the lid at an angle like a shield, quickly slide it onto the pot, taking care not to singe your arm, hair or anything else. Again, you’ve deprived the fire of oxygen, and it should go out. Do not move the pan until it cools.
What if you can’t find the lid? In this case, douse the grease fire with baking soda. If no baking soda is available, it’s time to break out the fire extinguisher.
Fire extinguishers come in a variety of ratings, but the key in this case is not to use one with only a Class A rating. The rating will be clearly marked on the unit (with a green triangle), and it will have a pictograph displaying the combustible objects for which it is suitable. Class A extinguishers (also known as “APWs”) are filled with air-pressurized water and are thus not suitable for grease fires. Instead, use a dry-chemical extinguisher (typically rated BC or ABC) or a carbon dioxide (CO2) unit, both of which are suitable for grease fires.
In general terms, CO2 extinguishers are preferable because dry-chemical units leave a powdery residue that is corrosive enough to ruin the stove. If you use a chemical extinguisher, once the fire is out, any powder should be cleaned up immediately using soap, water and rubber gloves.
Any fire that moves beyond the oven or stove to surrounding walls, cabinets or fixtures requires a call to the fire department — even if you are able to put it out with an extinguisher. Wiring could be damaged and should be inspected by a professional.
JOSH PIVEN is the co-author of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series. Visit joshuapiven.com.
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