New data released Sept. 20 from the National Fire Protection Association shows that candles are becoming an increasingly prevalent cause of home fires. Candles started fires in 18,000 homes in 2001, a 15% rise from 2000, and more than triple the number in 1990.
After declining from 1980 to 1990, candle-related home fires started increasing in 1991, and since 1995, each year has seen a new high in the number of fires blamed on candles. In 2001, candle fires in the home were responsible for an estimated 190 civilian deaths, 1,450 civilian injuries and $265 million in property damage.
What underlies this devastation? First, candles have become more popular: According to the National Candle Association, seven out of 10 households use candles. Second, many people don't realize how quickly something can go wrong, and don't know the rules for safe candle use. One-third of these fires occurred after candles were left unattended, abandoned or inadequately controlled. One-quarter occurred when combustible material came too close to the flame. And 6% were started by people—usually children—playing with the candle.
Another important factor may be poverty. As many as one-third of people killed in candle fires were using them for light because their power had been shut off. Even as candle-caused fires increase, the number of home fires is dropping. So the proportion of home fires related to candles has been growing, according to the NFPA study. In 2001, candle fires accounted for 4.7% of home fires, compared with 1.1% in the early 1980s. Four out of 10 candle fires start in the bedroom, and one in six start in common rooms, living rooms, family rooms or dens. Nearly half the people killed by candle fires in the home were younger than 20; children ages 5 to 9 accounted for a disproportionate share of the victims, with a candle-fire death rate 2.5 times higher than the general population.
Candle fires are most common in December, perhaps because candles are frequently a part of holiday decorating and rituals. Eleven percent of the candle fires in December started when decorations were ignited.
The NFPA offers these tips for safe candle use:
- Extinguish all candles when leaving the room or going to sleep.
- Keep candles away from things that can catch fire, such as clothing, books, paper, curtains, Christmas trees or decorations.
- Place candles on stable furniture in sturdy holders that won't tip over and that are big enough to collect dripping wax.
- Don't place lit candles in windows, where they may ignite blinds or curtains.
- Place candles only in areas where they won't be knocked over by children or pets.
- Extinguish taper and pillar candles when they get within two inches of the holder or decorative material. Extinguish votive and filled candles before the last half-inch of wax starts to melt.
- Avoid candles with combustible materials embedded in them, or with holders or decorations that could ignite.
- Don't allow children or teens to have candles in their bedrooms.
An updated NFPA brochure, "Candle with Care," has more information on candle safety. You can obtain it by calling 1 800 344-3555 or by ordering online at www.nfpa.org/catalog/.
The complete NFPA report (free for NFPA members) is also available online at NFPA’s One-Stop Data Shop.