Cooking, wiring leading causes of LV fires
After 23 years informing the public for the Las Vegas Fire Department and a nearly 50-year career in firefighting, it’s fair to say that Tim Szymanski knows a lot about fire.
What the department’s public education and information officer didn’t know until about five years ago was what happens after the fire — when the engines are gone and the investigators have finished.
“I help people after the fire, and I thought I knew all you needed to know to help people,” Szymanski said. “Not until I experienced it did I know how devastating it is to have a fire in your home.”
The fire at Szymanski’s home started with an electrical problem in a bathroom vent fan, something he has seen countless times.
He told the story at City Hall on Wednesday, when the Las Vegas City Council issued a proclamation for Fire Prevention Week — commem-
orated during the week that Oct. 9 falls, in remembrance of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Szymanski said the leading cause of house fires in Las Vegas is cooking accidents, like grease fires and unattended stoves.
Preparation can save your life
It’s human nature to panic when a fire starts in your home, Szymanski said, but being prepared and paying attention can go a long way toward preventing serious damage.
The safest and fastest way to handle a grease fire is to snuff it out by placing a pot lid or cooking sheet over the burning pan, Szymanski said.
“When people see those flames they think they’re going to extend up into the ceiling, which they will eventually, but in those first couple minutes you can take control of it,” he said.
In most places, cooking fires usually happen between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., but Las Vegas is a 24-hour town, Szymanski said.
“So we have a lot of cooking fires at 1, 2 o’clock in the morning — serious cooking fires in which people have died.”
When the worst happens and homes do catch fire, Szymanski said, the first thing to do is leave, especially if there are seniors or children inside.
“If you can’t put the fire out, just leave it alone,” he said.
House fires become deadly after about the first three minutes, due to high heat and smoke or carbon monoxide that become trapped inside the home, Szymanski said. If possible, close the door to the room where the fire began to keep smoke and flames from spreading, but get out as fast as possible.
Many fires are preventable, but sometimes they’re started by what he calls “freaks of nature”— bizarre, random accidents that are impossible to predict.
Szymanski said he once responded to a fire where a woman had accidentally dripped paint thinner on her mattress while cleaning spilled paint off her headboard. The chemical reacted with the polyeurethane foam mattress, and hours later the heat from the reaction ignited the mattress while the woman and her husband were sleeping on it.
“Sometimes people do absolutely nothing wrong,” he said, “but it’s just those freaks of nature. That fire starts up and then they have to go through the same thing we did.”
The second-most-common fires are caused by electricity or electronics. That includes overheated cellphones or damaged wiring, including the bathroom fan that caught fire in Szymanski’s home.
Be careful with electrical devices
Szymanski said you should never leave a phone or computer plugged in and sitting on a bed. He also said it’s wise to invest in a quality surge protector for items that need to stay plugged in.
Next on the list: Call a licensed electrician for electrical work and maintenance. The desert heat is murder on electrical wiring and can degrade the insulation, leaving live wires exposed.
“If you don’t know what you’re doing with electricity, don’t play with it and don’t try to do it yourself,” Szymanski said.
Bad wiring can lead to slow, smoldering fires that most people don’t notice until it’s too late, Szymanski said. Call the fire department to investigate burning smells and light hazes of smoke, even if there’s no visible fire.
The leading cause of fatal fires has been the same for 20 years: careless smoking. Cigarette butts should be completely extinguished before they’re thrown away, and seniors who use medical oxygen in their homes or take medications that cause drowsiness should avoid smoking inside or altogether, Szymanski said.
“We’ve seen homes catch on fire because people were stopped at a light or a stop sign, and they threw their cigarette out and it got into the brush, spread really fast and got up to a house,” he said. “If you’re going to smoke, you’ve got to smoke responsibly.”
Dried-out Christmas trees, clogged dryer ducts and chemicals or paint left in the sun are also common culprits in disastrous fires.
This year, Fire Prevention Week runs from Sunday through Saturday and coincides with the Las Vegas Fire Department’s 76th anniversary. Firefighters will spend the week speaking at schools and apartment complexes across the valley to share tips on fire safety.
Las Vegas Fire Department officer Tim Szymanski speaks Wednesday about causes of house fires in Las Vegas.