Most house fires start in the kitchen - in or on stoves, ovens, toasters, and microwave ovens.
Other major causes of house fires are:
- home heating - eg combustible items too close to heaters or open fires without fireguards
- faulty electrical appliances or wiring
- smoking in bed
- clothes dryers
- electric blankets
It takes as little as four minutes for a fire to engulf a room within a home.
The thick black smoke from a house fire makes it difficult to see and breathe and contains poisonous gases that can kill you. Many fires occur at night when people are asleep and they suffocate without ever waking.
Prepare for a house fire
Some simple precautions can help you in the event of a fire.
Install smoke alarms:
- Test them monthly by pressing and holding the test button using a broom handle.
- Clean with a soft brush attachment on a vacuum cleaner, at least six monthly.
- Change replaceable batteries annually.
- Replace the entire smoke alarm every ten years. This includes hard-wired smoke alarms.
- In houses built since 1 May 2014, multiple smoke alarms must be interconnected. The MFS recommends that multiple smoke alarms be interconnected in all homes.
Keep a suitable fire extinguisher and fire blanket in your kitchen.
- Store them away from the stove, they are best placed near a doorway.
- Make sure they are easily accessible.
- Learn how to use them before you need them.
Leave keys in locked doors and windows whenever someone is at home.
Ensure that electrical appliances are in good working order, and turn off non-essential items before going to bed or going out.
Make sure your house number is clearly visible from the street so emergency services can find it.
Make a plan
Having a home fire escape plan can help save your life in a house fire. Spend a few minutes with all household members talking about how you would respond if a fire started. You should:
- identify more than one way out of each room (including windows) and ensure that all family members know how to open doors and windows
- consider family members who may be at risk due to physical or mental health issues
- make plans for keeping your pets safe
- decide on a safe place outside the front of the house to meet - eg near the letterbox
- practice and review your plan every six months.
If you live in a multi-level house or an apartment, your home fire escape plan will need to include escape routes from upper levels.
The MFS has fact sheets on fire safety in the home.
Preventing house fires
Following basic safety advice and carrying out regular safety checks on your electricity and gas appliances can keep your home and the people in it safe from a house fire.
Electrical and gas safety
Always use a licensed electrician or gas fitter to carry out work around the house. They must issue a certificate of compliance.
Fully unwind extension cords so they don't overheat. Check that the plug and cord aren't damaged.
Never plug one power board into another, or use double or triple adaptors in power boards. Always ensure power boards have an overload cut-out switch.
Don't buy an electrical or gas appliance online unless you are sure it complies with Australian Standards.
Never leave heaters unattended. Keep flammable materials at least two metres away from a heater. Never plug heaters into power boards, double adaptors, or extension cords with other appliances.
Always follow the manufacturer's instructions for storing electric blankets when not being used. Before using the electric blanket again, lay it flat and run your hands over it to check for protruding wires. If there is no visible damage, then turn it on and check for hot spots. A hot spot could indicate a fault and fire risk. Discard faulty items and replace them.
Clean your clothes dryer lint filter before every load to reduce the risk of overheating. Follow the manufacturer's guidelines and only place suitable materials in the dryer.
Have your roof insulation and downlights checked by a licensed electrician. Insulation installed incorrectly around electrical wiring and downlights can cause fires.
Have your appliances serviced regularly or straight away if you think they are faulty.
Fire safety around open flames
Never leave open flames unattended:
- Always extinguish candles and oil burners before leaving a room.
- Don't leave the stove on when you're out of the kitchen.
- Keep a fire screen around an open fire or combustion heater. Put the fire out before leaving the house or going to bed.
Don't smoke in bed as it's easy to fall asleep and set the bedding alight.
Keep matches and lighters up high, out of sight, and reach of children.
Keep flammable materials ideally at least two metres away from an open fire or combustion heater. Don't hang clothes or towels to dry on, or in front of, heaters. Place them in a room with good airflow.
If you need light, use a torch or LED night light.
If you choose to use flame candles, here are some safety tips:
- use flame candles only with constant adult supervision
- keep the area around candles clear of all items, especially clothing, bedding, books, tablecloths and curtains
- don't place lit candles in windows where there are blinds or curtains
- place candles in non-combustible sturdy holders, on a secure piece of heat-resistant furniture
- extinguish all candles when leaving a room or going to sleep
- keep lit candles away from flammable liquids.
To ensure your home is both secure and fire-safe:
- install locks that can be opened from the inside without keys
- leave keys in locked doors and windows whenever someone is at home
- install security grilles that feature keyless options on the inside
- check that any window grille bars/screens open outwards from the inside easily using a quick-release mechanism
- if grilles are key locked, the key should be kept in the lock.
During a house fire
Make sure everyone knows how to get out if there is a fire. You should:
- get out quickly
- assist or alert others in danger if it is safe to do so
- keep down low if there is smoke (the cleanest air is close to the floor)
- feel the door with the back of your hand before opening it:
- if it's hot, the fire is close behind and you'll need to find another exit
- if the door isn't hot then open it slowly
- if you can, shut doors behind you as you leave
- shout warnings to other occupants as you leave
- meet at your designated meeting place outside the front of the house
- dial Triple Zero (000) once outside and ask for Fire
- never go back into the house - if someone is still inside, try to reach them from an external window
- instruct one person to wait near the road to meet the fire service. The rest of the household should shelter with neighbours or friends.
If you're in an upper storey:
- don't use lifts
- use any escape routes available.
If you can't escape:
- retreat into a room with a window exit, away from the fire
- close the door and seal the opening around the door and any vents with bedding or clothing
- call Triple Zero (000)
- stay by the window and attract the attention of firefighters.
Stop, cover, drop and roll
If your clothes catch fire:
- STOP, stand still - running will fan the flames
- COVER your face with your hands - to protect your face and airways
- DROP to the ground
- ROLL back and forth on the ground to put out the fire.
To help a person with burning clothing, follow the stop, cover, drop and roll procedure and help them roll back and forth. If a fire blanket or a woollen blanket is close by, use it to smother the flames.
First aid for burns
If someone gets burnt:
- immediately remove any clothing and jewellery that isn't stuck to the skin
- only use cool running water on the burn; do this for at least 20 minutes
- don't use oils, butter, ice, ointments, or any other concoctions
- cover the burn with a clean cloth or clean plastic cling wrap (don't use cling wrap on the face).
Get medical help if:
- the skin is broken or the burn is larger than the size of a 20 cent coin
- the burn is to the face, hands, feet, or genital area.
Putting out a fire
There are different ways to put out different fires. You can use water on wood, paper, fabric, or rubbish fires but never use water on fat, oil, or electrical fires.
Different types of fire extinguishers are needed for different fires but a dry chemical powder extinguisher and a fire blanket are suited to most fires in the home.
Only use a fire extinguisher if:
- the extinguisher is suitable for the type of fire involved
- you know how to use it
- it is a small fire that you can extinguish quickly
- you are not putting your safety at risk.
If you are unable to put out the fire:
- close the door to contain the fire to that room
- evacuate everyone from the house
- call triple zero (000) from outside the house even if you think the fire is out - fire services will attend and check for you.
There is no charge for the fire service to attend a fire, even if you have extinguished it prior to their arrival.
Oil or fat cooking fires
If oil or fat catches alight in a pot or pan:
- cover burning pans with a fire blanket, lid, or wooden chopping board, or use a dry powder fire extinguisher (type BE) to smother the flame
- turn off the heat source
- never use water on a fat fire because it will explode and spread the fire
- don't move the pan until it has completely cooled.
After a house fire
It's dangerous to enter a house that has been affected by fire. Only enter after clearance from a senior fire or police officer in charge.
A fire blanket can be used to smother a small fire or wrap around a person whose clothing is alight. Replace fire blankets once they have been used.
Put out a cooking fire
- Remove the fire blanket from its envelope.
- Grasp the tabs in each hand and tuck your hands under the top edge for protection
- Hold your arms out toward the fire.
- Move slowly and carefully towards the fire. The blanket will protect you from the heat and flame. Don't look over the top of the blanket at the fire.
- Let the bottom of the fire blanket touch the side of the fire. Slowly and carefully lower the blanket over the top of the fire. Don't attempt to throw the blanket over the fire.
- Place a saucepan lid, a metal tray, or another flat solid object on top of the fire blanket.
- Turn off the heat source.
- Dial Triple Zero (000) and ask for the fire service. They will check for fire spread - eg through the exhaust fan or range hood, and assist in removing smoke from the house.
- Leave the fire blanket and solid object in place for at least an hour before you attempt to move them.
Put out a clothing fire
To put out a clothing fire, wrap the blanket around the flames and person. Help them to:
- stop moving
- cover their face
- drop to the ground
- roll until the fire is out
- seek medical assistance.
Buying a fire blanket
When choosing a fire blanket, make sure it complies with Australian Standards - AS/NZS 3504:2006 Fire blankets. It must measure no less than 1 metre by 1 metre.
Storing a fire blanket
A fire blanket should be easy to reach. A good place is in the kitchen, where small cooking fires may occur. Don't place a fire blanket near the stove as a stovetop fire might stop you from getting to it. Instead, place the fire blanket near the doorway to the kitchen.
Fire extinguishers can be used to put out small fires in the home, garage or garden shed.
Only use a fire extinguisher if:
- the extinguisher is suitable for the type of fire involved
- the fire is small and can be extinguished quickly
- you are not putting your safety or others' safety at risk.
Using a fire extinguisher
‘PASS’ is an easy way to remember how to use a fire extinguisher:
- Pull the pin at the top of the extinguisher.
- Aim the extinguisher nozzle at the base of the fire.
- Squeeze the trigger while holding the extinguisher upright.
- Sweep the nozzle from side to side, covering the base of the fire.
Types of fire extinguishers
Fire extinguishers may be completely red, or red with a coloured band around the middle to indicate their contents:
- all red with no coloured band - water
- blue band - foam
- white band - dry chemical powder
- black band - carbon dioxide
- beige band - wet chemical.
Yellow fire extinguishers (old BCF/halon extinguishers) are illegal to own or use as they contain emissions that affect the ozone layer. Hand these extinguishers in at your nearest fire station.
Buying a fire extinguisher
A dry chemical powder fire extinguisher is suitable for fires involving cooking oils and fats as well as electrical fires. When choosing a fire extinguisher make sure it complies with Australian Standards - AS/NZS 1841.1:2007 Portable fire extinguishers - general requirements.
Storing a fire extinguisher
Store fire extinguishers so they are easy to get to but away from areas likely to catch fire. In the kitchen, away from the stove is a good place.
Fire extinguisher maintenance
Shake the fire extinguisher occasionally to prevent the powder from settling.
Regularly check and replace the extinguisher if:
- there is any visible damage
- the pressure gauge isn't in the green zone.
After using a fire extinguisher
After using a fire extinguisher it should be taken to your local council waste transfer station or waste depot. If your council doesn't accept used fire extinguishers, the supplier of the extinguisher should be contacted.
Only working smoke alarms can provide critical early warning and time to escape a house fire. When you are asleep, you lose your sense of smell. A smoke alarm will alert you if there is smoke from a fire.
Research indicates that photo-electric alarms provide the best detection across a range of fires.
For homes which already have ionisation alarms, the MFS recommend that they be supplemented with additional, interconnected photo-electric alarms. When existing ionisation alarms reach 10 years of age, they should be replaced with photo-electric smoke alarms.
The MFS recommends that the best protection is provided by photo-electric smoke alarms which are hard-wired to the 240-volt power supply and interconnected to give the earliest warning possible.
The absence of a working smoke alarm can increase the possibility of a fatal house fire by 60%.
Smoke alarm requirements
The type of smoke alarm required depends on when you purchased your home or the age of your home.
All homes or residential properties built on or after 1 January 1995 require a 240 volt, mains-powered smoke alarm.
All homes or residential rental properties purchased:
- on or after 1 February 1998 require either a 240- volt, mains-powered smoke alarm or a battery-powered 10-year life, non-replaceable, non-removable smoke alarm
- before 1 February 1998 and not included in the above criteria, must be equipped with at least one 9-volt battery-powered smoke level on each level.
In homes built since 1 May 2014, multiple smoke alarms must be interconnected.
In existing buildings (ie those approved before 1 May 2014) any extension or addition (approved from 1 May 2014) which requires more than one smoke alarm must have those alarms interconnected however there is not a requirement to interconnect to alarms in the existing building.
Smoke alarms in subsequent extensions will be required to interconnect to any alarms in extensions approved after 1 May 2014.
The MFS strongly recommends that smoke alarms be interconnected in all homes, regardless of when the home was built, especially if you sleep with the door closed.
Interconnected alarms sound simultaneously when one of them senses smoke.
Smoke alarms for the hearing impaired
Special smoke alarms are available for the hearing impaired. These should feature a flashing strobe light and a vibrating pad that can be placed under a pillow to activate when the alarm sounds.
Smoke alarms for the hearing impaired can link with standard smoke alarms to alert all household members, regardless of hearing levels. When one alarm senses smoke, all will activate.
Other models are portable units that can be taken from one location to another.
When choosing a smoke alarm, make sure it:
- complies with the Australian Standard - AS 3786-2014 Smoke alarms
- has the Standards Australia mark or is Scientific Services Laboratory (SSL) certified.
View a list of compliant smoke alarms on the CSIRO website.
Installing smoke alarms
The layout of your home will influence where you install smoke alarms. Every dwelling must be assessed individually to ensure that occupants of every bedroom in the dwelling will receive an audible warning so they may safely evacuate.
Smoke alarms should be located in escape routes from bedrooms:
- if there's a passageway, install the alarm between the living area and the first bedroom
- if bedrooms are accessed directly from the living area, install smoke alarms outside each bedroom, 900 mm from doorways.
If the household sleep with bedroom doors closed, consider installing additional smoke alarms in each room and interconnecting them with the smoke alarms in the rest of the house.
In addition to the requirements for bedrooms, smoke alarms should be located near the stairs on each level in multi-level homes.
To reduce the likelihood of nuisance alarms, seek professional advice before installing smoke alarms in bathrooms, kitchens, and laundries.
Smoke alarm and battery replacement
Change the batteries in your smoke alarms every year - this includes replaceable backup batteries used in mains-powered smoke alarms.
The best time to change your replaceable batteries is at the end of daylight saving, before the winter season.
Don't wait until the smoke alarm sounds a low battery warning.
Smoke alarm testing
Make sure you test your smoke alarms every month.
- Press the test button - use a broom if you can't reach it.
- Hold down the button until you hear the loud 'beep beep beep' alert tone, then release.
- If the alarm stays on, press the test button again to turn the alarm off.
Smoke alarm maintenance
At least every six months, clean the outside of your smoke alarm to remove any build-up of dust and cobwebs using the soft brush attachment of a vacuum cleaner.
The MFS does not recommend the use of any spray near the smoke alarm as this could compromise the sensor inside.
Never paint over or cover your smoke alarm.
Smoke alarm lifespan
All smoke alarms, including those connected to mains electricity, should be replaced every 10 years.