If there's one message Allegheny County Fire Marshal Don Brucker would like to get out, it's that multitasking and cooking don't mix.
It's a good reminder especially now, with Easter around the corner. Cooking fires peak on holidays, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Cooks get in a hurry, or prepare more food than usual, or get distracted by all the friends and family in the kitchen, and boom -- tipping that pan of holiday ham results in a grease fire.
Across the country, 57 percent of house fires from 2007 to 2011 -- the most recent statistics available -- involved cooking equipment. But perhaps more significantly, 77 percent of fire-related injuries and 86 percent of deaths happened during cooking fires.
In Allegheny County, the kitchen fire stats are lower. Excluding the city of Pittsburgh, cooking-related fires in the county amounted to only 8 percent of total fires in both residential and commercial properties in 2013. Nonetheless, Mr. Brucker says it's important to realize that the vast majority of cooking fires are preventable because they happen when people leave food to cook unattended.
In fact, an unattended Fourth of July cooking fire was blamed in the deaths of four people in Lancaster last summer.
Lack of attention also caused a kitchen fire for Nancy Yarris back in 1987, when she had been married for just six weeks.
Mr. Brucker says it takes only 15 minutes over high heat for a pot of oil to burst into flame. But Mrs. Yarris estimates it happened in even less time in her case because she'd put a lid on the pan, which made the temperature rise more quickly.
"I never really cooked much before I was married," Mrs. Yarris explained.
Aiming to be a good new wife, Mrs. Yarris set out to fix her mother-in-law's fried chicken for hubby's dinner when he came home from work.
She filled the pan with oil -- probably too full, she says now -- and put a lid on it, then turned the burner to high. Then her husband came home from work, and she turned her back on the stove. She's sure she was gone not five minutes, but when she came back and removed the lid -- whoosh! Flames shot all the way to the ceiling of their Ben Avon apartment.
Mr. Brucker said that nowadays, with so much technology at our fingertips, it's easier than ever for multitaskers to leave the stove without realizing how long they're gone.
And once oil catches fire, the rest of the kitchen can burst into flame with chilling speed.
Putting it out
Once a fire starts, people often make it worse, Mr. Brucker said.
Mrs. Yarris says she "panicked" and first tried to throw a rug over the fire, but it didn't help. Her husband finally picked up the pan and threw it out on their fire escape. He saved the apartment but ended up in West Penn Hospital with a third-degree burn on his hand between his thumb and index finger. He required skin-grafting surgery and had to wear a pressure glove for a year. Talk about trial by fire for a new marriage.
Mr. Brucker says picking up a pan and moving it is not the right thing to do because people sometimes end up igniting the curtains or something else. Water isn't the answer either because if it's a grease fire, it only intensifies. And opening a window to let the smoke out simply adds more fuel to the fire.
It's best to use a fire extinguisher, although the majority of homes in Allegheny County don't have them, he said. Mrs. Yarris didn't have one, although she says that in recent years, she's been to bridal showers where people give fire extinguishers as gifts, and she thinks it's a great idea.
Mr. Brucker said it's better to contain a fire by throwing a pot lid or a wet rag over it than to move the burning pot. People do sometimes use these methods effectively; there are kitchen fires that go unreported because a quick thinker can occasionally put a fire out before it escalates to the point where fire department involvement is required.
But there's no one-size-fits-all solution because every fire is different, he said.
Prevention: the best cure
"How you deal with it is you don't let the fire happen in the first place," he said.
A few more tips:
* Cooking oil that is saved and reused repeatedly has a lower ignition temperature than new oil, Mr. Brucker said.
* Terrycloth towels used to clean up grease can be a fire hazard, too, even after they've been laundered. If they're not laundered properly, they can ignite in the dryer or when they're bagged and left sitting in a corner near a fire source.
* Keeping appliances clean can help prevent fires, too.
* A StoveTop FireStop, which Mr. Brucker described as looking like a "cat food container on a magnet," can be placed on an exhaust hood over a stove. If the can-shaped device senses fire, it sprays a chemical fire-suppressant that can "really help lessen the degree of magnitude" of a fire, he said. (For an example, see stovetopfirestop.com.)
And substance abuse is a big culprit in cooking fires, he said, because it impairs people's judgment and reaction times.
What he doesn't want people to do, though, is to stick a pot on the stove and figure they can wander away for 14 minutes, assuming that it's minute 15 when the pot will ignite. It's never a good idea to leave an active cooking site, he said.
People don't realize there's collateral damage after a fire, Mr. Brucker said. Sure, the house can be damaged or even destroyed. But it's even more than that.
"I don't think there have been many studies on the psychological effects of fires on families," he said. "It's almost Easter, so you decide to decorate and go to get the egg tree that used to be your grandmother's" -- but then you remember that along with the rest of the family's treasured memorabilia, it burned in the house fire.
Thankfully, in Mrs. Yarris' case, there was no damage to the apartment, and although her husband was severely injured, he eventually made a complete recovery and -- important to a new marriage -- "he forgave me."
However, she's never deep-fried again.
"I'll saute things in olive oil, but I still don't cook with grease," she said.
And even 27 years later, she's still the butt of friends' jokes. Anytime people are planning a get-together, someone inevitably cracks, "And Nancy will bring the chicken!"