FOX Files: Kitchen Fires

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(KTVI) – Firefighters in St. Louis respond to thousands of fires a year, and none more than fires that start in the kitchen.  The numbers here mirror national figures, with about 42% of all fires starting with things like the pot left unattended on the stove, of the cardinal sin of fire, throwing water on burning grease.  That is like having a time bomb in your home, and can change your life forever.  Just ask Yolanda Johnson.

“I don’t know what happened or how it happened.  But my sleeve caught on fire.”

Johnson was cooking steak and potatoes that night in 2005, when something happened and the pan caught fire.  The burning sleeve was just the beginning, though.  A friend in the kitchen with her though she was helping.  

“My shirt caught on fire so I automatically took the shirt off, but then my friend was with me and she automatically threw the water on the skillet.”

The sound that came next is unmistakable.  It’s that of a cup full of water expanding an already large fire by about 25 thousand times.  It is a ball of flame that can engulf a room.  

“It went everywhere. It went up and back,” she remembers of the flames.  “And all over me.”  
  She dropped to the floor, was in shock enough to call 9-1-1 and order her kids notified.  But it didn’t last long.

“Once the ambulance got there, that’s when I felt the first pain.  And that’s the worst pain you will ever feel.”

She suffered burns over forty percent of her upper body.  There were third degree and even fourth degree burns.  If you’ve never heard of fourth degree, that’s when the burn goes through the skin, all to way to muscle and bone.   She spent a month in the hospital, and there would be much, much more.

“That was just the beginning.” she said.  “That was just the beginning.”

St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson has seen this way too many times.   The ones with grease are the worst because they’re so sudden and violent.

“You get a fireball,” he says.  “You get a fireball inside of the kitchen.  And if you’re close to it, your clothes, your hair.  You’re burnt.  Bad.”

Firefighters assisted FOX2 in setting a grease fire on a stove, then pouring water over it.  The pictures are dramatic.  Video is attached of the fires, making those horrifying, sizzling sounds.  

But we also tried out a device that could help save someone with a fire burning on their stove.  It’s called the Stovetop Firestop.  It’s a small can that mounts above your stove. It has a fuse, and if the fuse ignites, there’s a small explosion, pouring fire suppressant chemical onto the stove.  

When we tested the Firestop, it worked well.  The fire was almost completely extinguished.

At least twelve municipalities around the country are requiring the device in some homes, usually apartments, or are considering it.  Most of those cities are in Texas.

Officials here in St. Louis aren’t ready to endorse the product.  They would like to see it get a UL certification first, something the company says it doesn’t have because there’s nothing quite like their product for the testing lab to compare it to.  

But Chief Jenkerson does see the upside to the device.  

“It can’t hurt,” he said, regarding the purchase of one.

“It might be one of those things you don’t have to worry about, you don’t have to grab.  You don’t have to activate.  It’s automatic.  If you have a fire extinguisher in your house you have to remember to grab the fire extinguisher, pull the pin, aim it, and hopefully when you aim it you won’t aim into the grease and splatter the grease all over.”

That grease nightmare is something Yolanda Johnson lives with to this day.  The scars on her upper body stand out, something she says took getting used to.  

“The scarring is… have to deal with the scarring inside and out,” she says.  

She hopes someone, anyone, will learn from this story, and learn a new respect for fire.  

If you’d like to purchase one, you can go to the customer service desk at your local Lowe’s store or Ace Hardware store, or go here:

Web Extra: FOX Files Kitchen Fires