Cooking is by far the leading cause of fires, nationally accounting for 550 deaths, nearly 5,000 injuries, and more than $1 billion in property damage on average per year.

Most of these fires begin on unattended stovetops. “That gets even worse when people respond to that fire and don’t try to extinguish it properly,” says Charleston Fire Department Chief Fire Marshal Mike Julazadeh.

Safely putting out a kitchen fire is simple- you can do by smothering the burning pan with a lid, a cooking sheet, a fire extinguisher, or use baking soda. “Baking soda is very similar to what’s used inside a fire extinguisher,” says Julazadeh. “We don’t want you to use flour, sugar, or salt. It may not have the extinguishing effect and may be counterproductive.” 

But whatever you do- don’t you dare use water.

An explosive result of throwing water on an oil fire.
Photo credit: Alfonso J. Procopio, Charleston Fire Department

It’s easy to see how this is a bad idea, but why does this violent reaction occur? It boils down to the often repeated principle: oil and water don’t mix.

Oil is less dense than water so when water is thrown in a burning pan full of grease, it immediately goes under the grease to the extremely hot surface of the pan. This turns the water to steam instantly, not before rapidly expanding to 1700 times its original size.

“That very quickly pushes all the oil out of the pan. and the oil is already on fire. And that’s what’s creating that explosive effect of adding water to a hot grease fire.”

As such, don’t inadvertently introduce water by moving the pan to the sink. And in general, don’t move it- even after the fire has been extinguished as splattering oil often causes injuries and can further spread the fire. In addition, don’t take the lid off as the fire may restart and flare if you reintroduce oxygen to a barely smothered fire.

The bottom line:

“Never leave this type of cooking for any length of time. And if you do come back to the kitchen with an event like this, relax- think about how you can extinguish it and don’t forget to call 9-1-1.”

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson