Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on September 1, 2019.

'Tis the Season 

The onset of winter means more home fires. Here's what you can do to minimize the risk in your communities. 

As a skier, I look forward to winter and the promise of snow in the mountains. But as a fire safety professional, I dread this time of year because, as temperatures fall, the number of fires inevitably begins to rise.

According to NFPA statistics, about half of the nation’s home structure fires—and more than half of the home fire deaths—occur in the five-month span between November and March, with January being the peak month for both. As we head into this high-risk stretch, I urge everyone involved with fire safety outreach and education to ramp up their activities to help prevent winter fires.

There are several factors that make this time of year a perfect storm of fire risk. Looking at the three main causes of winter fires and examining the numbers behind each can be instructive and help safety advocates tailor their efforts to minimize the risk.

Cooking is the top cause of winter home fires. While these types of fires are a problem throughout the year—leading to 550 deaths, on average, annually—the pace of the problem picks up dramatically during the winter months. According to NFPA statistics, four of the five peak days each year associated with cooking fires coincide with winter-season holidays. Thanksgiving Day leads the way, with an average of 1,600 reported cooking fires across the US—more than three times the typical daily average of such fires. Christmas Eve, Christmas, and the day before Thanksgiving were the other high-risk days for cooking fires, ranging from 640 fires to 800 fires on average. Research says that the majority of these incidents are due to inattention while cooking. We all know how easy it can be to get distracted with guests and holiday preparations, which is why the dangers of unattended cooking should be a big safety message we share with our communities as the holidays approach.

Heating is another leading cause of winter fires. During the period of 2013–2017, heating equipment was involved in an estimated annual average of 50,500 reported home structure fires in the US, and caused an average of 500 deaths. While dirty chimneys were the most common source of heating-related fires, fixed or portable space heaters have caused by far the most heating equipment-related deaths; they were involved in roughly five of every six fatal incidents. These tragic deaths occur mainly when something combustible is set too close to the heater. Our safety messaging needs to help people understand the importance of cleaning their chimneys before the first use of the season and that they must keep combustible materials at least three feet away from space heaters.

Rounding out the big three are Christmas tree fires. Although the number of incidents is small—an average of 160 a year—given the large fuel load of a tree, these types of fires can be particularly deadly and lead to high property damage. As expected, most Christmas tree fires happen in December, but about 30 percent occur in January when trees have been up too long and have dried out. Lighting or electrical factors are involved in half of these fires. It is essential to remind community members that trees should be well watered and lights should be inspected and in good working order.

Broadcasting these important safety messages to your communities is essential if we are to lower these numbers and save lives. A good place to start is the “Put A Freeze on Winter Fires” campaign homepage, a joint effort between NFPA and the US Fire Administration. For more resources for preventing winter fires, including public education activities, visit

Lorraine Carli is vice president of Outreach and Advocacy for NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler