Candles Keep the Home Fires Burning

Last Editorial Review: 9/29/2004

A new study from the National Fire Protection Association finds that candles are becoming an increasingly common cause of home fires. After declining for years, candle-related home fires started increasing again in 1991. What is the explanation for this fire-alarming trend?

Candles are currently used in 7 out of 10 American homes. Sometimes, it is because there is no electricity available. Reasons for lack of electricity include being in a rural or isolated location, not paying the electric bill or downed electric lines due to inclement weather such as wind or ice. But in many cases, candles are used simply for decoration or celebration. Candle fires are most common in December when the days are short and candles are a part of holiday decorating rituals. Another factor is that the public is encouraged to use colored and/or scented candles in the home to set a mood or create a special atmosphere, for example, romance, relaxation, less stress, etc.

Comment: You won't be relaxed and in a romantic mood if a candle starts a fire in your home! An astonishing 40% of home candle fires start in bedrooms. In spite of what those decorators say on the television shows and in magazines, it is probably not a good idea to have candles in bedrooms.

Personal Note: We live in Florida and just experienced Hurricane Jeanne. Because of falling trees, we were without electric power before, during and after the storm. We used batttery-operated light sources when we were moving around the house but we did use candles at times, for example, while preparing and eating meals. But we never carried any candles into the bath or the bedroom. We did not want to add a house fire to the rest of the damage caused by the hurricane.

Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.
Frederick Hecht, M.D.
Medical Editors,

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NFPA study shows a 15% increase in candle fires from 2000 to 2001, triple the number in 1990

September 20, 2004 - New data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) show that candles are becoming an increasingly prevalent cause of home fires. Candles started fires in 18,000 homes in 2001, a 15 percent 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 percent 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 percent of home fires, compared with 1.1 percent 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.

Source: National Fire Protection Association press release



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