As bright orange flames licked the sides of a kitchen pan coated in vegetable oil and began to rapidly grow in height, Chris Turner took action.
Armed with a small cup full of water, Turner dumped the liquid into the pan. He took a step back
as the flames, instead of simmering down, shot higher. Some of the
flames spilled out of the pan and onto the floor, while others attacked the wooden cabinetry above the stove.
No worries, though — Turner had the situation under control. The Fire Safety Center lead technician at Chippewa Valley Technical College was conducting a demonstration Thursday at the center on how to safely extinguish an oil fire.
“That’s what you’re going to get,” Turner said of the consequences of using water to extinguish oil fires, as he placed a lid over the pan. “If you had more oil in there, it may be enough to light the whole kitchen on fire.”
Kitchen fires are the source of roughly half of all home fires firefighters respond to, a national statistic that Turner said is generally applicable locally too. He’s been serving on the Township Fire Department for almost 25 years.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, home cooking equipment is responsible for more than 170,000 home fires, 5,000 bodily injuries and 500 deaths annually.
Turner said most kitchen fires are the result of two accidents — cooking that’s been left on the stove too long or physical items like rags catching fire when left too close to a hot burner.
There are right and wrong ways to deal with those fires, Turner said, especially when it comes to oil fires. Because water and oil do not mix, water will sink to the bottom of the pan, evaporate and take grease particles and the flames with it, hence the upward explosion effect.
Instead of using water, Turner said, small oil fires can be contained by smothering them with baking soda. Larger fires will need to be put out by covering the pan with a metal lid, as glass lids could crack. Once the fire runs out of oxygen inside the closed pan, it will extinguish itself.
Fire extinguishers can aggravate the fire by splashing the oil around, potentially causing injury. If using an extinguisher, Turner said, use it at a low angle instead of pointing directly down at the fire, and apply it in bursts.
Sometimes medical emergencies or distracted cooking can cause a kitchen fire to get out of control, however.
“Most people would not continue to heat the oil with this much smoke,” Turner said while waiting for the oiled pan to light up for his demonstration, gesturing at the smoke billowing out of the mock kitchen inside the Fire Safety Center.
In those instances, trouble may be averted by a product out of Virginia that is currently in a research phase. Mark Baldino of FireBot was testing his invention on Thursday at the Fire Safety Center at CVTC’s West Campus because the facility has the features required to safely test with fire.
FireBot is an automatic stove-top fire suppression product that detects abnormal heat and discharges a fire suppressant to extinguish the fire automatically.
Once the product’s thermometer reaches 190 degrees, it activates a 20-second burst. Baldino said his company is searching for the best suppressant to use and hopes to launch the product in about six months. It would retail for about $165.
“If we can prevent (kitchen fires), not only do we save a lot of lives,” Baldino said, “we cut our responses and used resources down too.”
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