‘Most fires are preventable’: Fire marshal explains common causes of house fires

‘Typically they’re always caused by user error’

We talked to a fire marshal who said we shouldn't be losing people to fires the way we still are today. The causes are almost always due to an error made by a person.

STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. – Shawn Allen is the Sterling Heights fire marshal.

Allen and most fire marshals across the country get upset when people are hurt or killed in house fires because they are preventable.

“95-96 percent of the fires are preventable. Most fires are preventable, that we see. Typically they’re always caused by user error,” said Allen.

That’s right, user error -- mistakes we make and don’t even know it. Allen said a common mistake is placing a space heater too close to something that will catch fire.

“If you put them next to drapery, cardboard boxes, if it’s underneath your desk and you have a filing cabinet that’s full of papers stuff like that -- papers that are in the trash, plastic trash cans. That’s all considered combustibles,” said Allen.

Moreover, space heaters are to be plugged directly into the wall.

Related: Fire safety tips for families

“Always plug heaters directly into a wall outlet or receptacle. Never use with an extension cord or relocated power tap,” Allen said as he read the label on a space heater electrical cord.

Most extension cords cannot handle the electricity a space heater pulls. Allen showed us what happens when a space heater is plugged into an everyday, non-grounded extension cord.

“It’s just been on for less than a minute and you can already feel it starting to heat up a little bit. Now if you put this underneath a rug, underneath a pillow or furniture or something like that, that even causes it to heat up even faster,” he said.

He used a thermal imaging camera to show how the cord was heating up.

Unfortunately, an extension cord is exactly what caused a fire in Sterling Heights last winter. An elderly woman was trapped inside. She did not survive. The cause was a melted extension cord connected to a space heater.

The fire marshal also said if you absolutely have to use a power strip do not get the ones that simply have an on and off button. Those are the cheap ones. You need to get the power strips with the built-in breaker that will automatically trip if there is an issue and not cause a fire. Power strips are really only meant for low-power items.

“They’re not made to run a heater or a refrigerator, anything that has a motor on it,” said Allen.

Lithium batteries are causing more fires, too.

“Charge it while you’re awake, then when you’re done charging make sure you unplug the charger. Don’t leave it on the charger all the time,” said Allen.

Again, Allen said so many of these fires are preventable.

“We shouldn’t be losing people the way we do now,” he said.

About the Author:

Nick joined the Local 4 team in February of 2015. Prior to that he spent 6 years in Sacramento covering a long list of big stories including wildfires and earthquakes. Raised in Sterling Heights, he is no stranger to the deep history and pride Detroit has to offer.