Apartments, Homes More at Risk for Fires Than Past Years

A picture of a smoke detector on a ceiling with smoke rising up to it.

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Deadly fires in recent weeks have prompted calls for greater fire safety in homes and buildings.

The increase in calls for action has occurred following a recent fire in an apartment building in New York City’s Bronx borough, where at least 19 people died, followed by a fire in a Philadelphia row house that killed 12.

An average of about 3,500 people died in fires per year between 2010 and 2019, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. That number is rising.

Construction experts say that homes and buildings are at greater risk because more materials in the building of homes and furniture are more flammable than they used to be. The widespread use of synthetic materials is increasing the risk, they say.

Today, people have just three minutes to escape a home fire, according to UL, a safety certification company. About 40 years ago, homeowners had about 17 minutes to escape from a similar fire.

“Combustible materials are those that readily ignite and burn,” Stephen Quarles, an expert in construction materials and fire and mitigation strategies, told MarketWatch. “Many common construction materials are combustible, including wood and wood-plastic composite and plastic products (commonly used for decking and siding).”

About 90% of homes built in the U.S. are wood-framed, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

The most common cause of fires is cooking, followed by heating a home, according to the National Fire Protection Association. The recent deadly fire in the Bronx was reportedly caused by a malfunctioning space heater.

Fire experts say there are several ways for homeowners and renters to lower their risk, such as not leaving hot stoves or space heaters unattended. But they also recommend closing all doors to prevent fires from spreading quickly. This includes closing the doors to bedrooms at night. UL research shows that could possibly protect occupants if a fire started elsewhere in the home or apartment. Closed doors and windows can help prevent the fire from having enough oxygen to burn and spread. It could give people more time to get out in a fire, Steve Kerber, vice president and executive director of UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute, told MarketWatch.