Metro Weekly

Burnt Offerings: 8 Tips to Prevent a Thanksgiving Kitchen Fire

Thanksgiving needn't go up in flames if you use common sense and our handy tips

Burnt turkey - Photo: Andrey Armyagov

Burnt turkey – Photo: Andrey Armyagov

It’s nearly Thanksgiving and kitchens all over the D.C. area are turning into command and control centers. Whether you’re pulling out granny’s china for a full-on traditional, adorning your cement-topped dining table with slate placemats and ultra-white dinnerware, or throwing eco-friendly bamboo bowls onto an upcycled trestle, there’s a lot to organize before the big day.

But along with the shopping lists, recipe hunting and general melee of the season, spare a few thoughts for the safety of yourself and your guests.

Yes, safety. It may come as a shock, but according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), cooking is the number one cause of home fires and injuries in the United States and, not only that, Thanksgiving Day is the biggest and baddest of all. Put another way, throwing a turkey in the oven and coming up with a few inventive sides risks quite a bit more than just an overachiever’s high blood pressure.

The cause of kitchen fires is no great mystery. A recent NFPA review showed that two-thirds started with food or some other item catching fire. Sixty-one percent began on the stovetop, with more starting on electric ranges than gas cookers. And of all types of cooking, frying led to the most problems.

But as obvious as these dangers may be, fires happen surprisingly often. The NFPA reports that U.S. fire departments respond to an average of 162,400 cooking fires per year which cause an average of 430 civilian deaths, 5,400 injuries, and $1.1 billion in property damage. That’s no small potatoes — whether roasted, baked or creamed.

So don’t turn yourself into an effigy this Thanksgiving and observe a few fire safety basics courtesy of the American Red Cross:

  1. Don’t Be a Big Girl’s Blouse (or wear one). Loose clothing and dangling sleeves not only dip into food, they dip into flames and onto hot electric rings. If your idea of gracious entertaining involves anything Gary Oldman might wear as Dracula, don’t adorn yourself until after the cooking is done.
  2. Clear the Decks. Whether you are a beauty-from-chaos cook or more the prepped-for-surgery type, always be sure to trash every paper and plastic wrapping as you go. It takes very little for some hastily shed packaging to end up too close to a flame or hot ring. The same goes for all those rooster-covered Williams and Sonoma oven mitts, pot holders and tea-towels. Remember that wooden spoons are made of the same stuff that burns in a fireplace. And if you have re-decorated for your mother-in-law’s critical eye, make sure curtains can’t drape on or near the stove.
  3. An Unwatched Pot Will Do More than Boil. If the doorbell rings just as you hear your partner start plunging the toilet in the pristine powder room, resist the urge to drop everything and run for those brand-new holiday hand towels. You must not leave your stove unattended, even for a minute. Whatever the snafu is — and there will be one — plan in advance who will handle it and who will keep watch over the pots. The same is true for the pleasures and stresses of guest arrivals. If you are still cooking, do not abandon your post to play host or manage the high-maintenance. Have them brought to you in situ or assign their drinks, hors d’oeuvres and psychotherapy to someone else. If you must leave the hot spot, turn everything off.
  4. Keeping a Bun in the Oven. If you are baking, whether it be turkey or pie, use timers to avoid cremation. Do not leave the house — it guarantees temptation of any Fate even vaguely paying attention.
  5. Don’t Fry the Small Fry. If small children will be among your guests (condolences in advance), remind yourself that they are not known for their sense of self-preservation. You can ask nicely that they be kept out of the kitchen, but don’t count on compliance, especially if the parents are of the free-range variety. If something toddles in, keep it clear of anything that flames, spits, or might feel hot to small fingers or foreheads. The advice is the same for pets, whether visiting or resident.
  6. Keep a Roving Eye. When the evening is finally done — and regardless of whether you are leaving a pile of dishes worthy of Dr. Seuss or have washed and dried every last teaspoon — cast an eye over anything and everything that makes things hot and be sure it has been turned off. That means stoves, ovens, crock pots, samovars, candles, fondue sets, and other appliances. When you do get around to cleaning up, be sure to conquer the grease with your elbow as build-up around stoves is a particular fire hazard.
  7. Perennial Smarts. No matter the season, keep a small fire extinguisher in a handy kitchen cupboard and be sure to replace it over time. Install or hang a smoke alarm near the kitchen. Test the ear-piercing signal each month and completely change the batteries at least once a year.
  8. Fight Fire with Facts. Use common sense: if it’s a small grease fire in a pan, the NFPA advises sliding a lid over the pan and turning off the heat. If something in the oven catches, keep the oven door shut and turn it off. For any other kitchen fire, get out of the room, close the door, and immediately dial 911. More than half of all kitchen fire injuries happened when the victims tried to fight the fire themselves. If you do try, the NFPA advises you ensure everyone else leaves and you have a clear way out. But ask yourself: do you really want to find out if you can make that weird little fire extinguisher work?

So plan ahead, stay vigilant, and the worst the evening can offer will be your relatives.

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