A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Followup: to douse a stovetop fire, should you remove the pan from the heat?

Dear Straight Dope:

I have a nit to pick with the answer given to "Why doesn't the water in fire hydrants freeze?" Not with the answer to that question, but with some of the other points raised. As to my qualifications to pick these nits, I have 15 years in as a firefighter in a small volunteer department.

small fires (like the kind you get on the stovetop when you're cooking) are easily put out by removing the pan from the heat and sprinkling it with baking soda

I think that this is dangerous advice. Better to say "remove the heat from the pan." In our fire safety trailer (I'm sure you've seen them), we instruct children to NEVER move a fire. If you have a pan of flaming grease (or whatever), you do not want to pick it up and move it at all. You run the risk of spilling the burning contents and spreading the fire. If you can do so safely, turn off the burners and then extinguish the fire where it sits. Even if you can't turn off the burners, it's better to extinguish the fire and then turn them off.

Baking soda and covering the pan are both legitimate ways of extinguishing a fire, but neither are as good as a fire extinguisher. You can pick up a good ABC rated extinguisher for maybe $13, an investment well worth the losses it can prevent. Just remember to mount it where the fire will not be between you and it. Also, know how to use it. Most local fire departments will be more than happy to show you.

Also, a very minor nit to pick:

But the first source of water for firefighters is not the fire hydrant. It's the fire engine (as opposed to the fire truck, which carries the ladders). A standard fire engine usually holds from 500-700 gallons of water, more than enough to put out the average house fire.

Very true, if you define an "average house fire" as a "small room and contents fire," which it is. Yes, the engine carries enough water to put this out, but the department would be foolish to not also hit a plug for the fire. If the fire isn't put out by the initial attack, the time taken to hit the plug while the fire burns can be significant.

There is a tactic known as a "blitz attack" where the first engine attacks the fire via tank water, while the second hits the plug, but you had better be sure that that second engine is there to back you up.

You're correct that it's semantically better to say "remove the heat from the pan" than "remove the pan from the heat" when trying to put out a simple stovetop fire. But that only works with a gas stove. When you've got an electric stovetop, turning off the burner will not remove the heat. In that instance, it would be better to turn off the heat and cover the pan (removing the air) or slide it across to a spot that isn't hot (depending on what's in the pan, natch) and then toss in the baking soda. (The reply was not written with children in mind because kids can't access The Straight Dope forum.)

The best defense for any fire (as my father pointed out yesterday) is PREVENTION. But as you pointed out, having a fire extinguisher handy (and in good working order) is also a good idea.

Sometimes, however, folks aren't as prepared as we'd like them to be, and baking soda can come in handy.

In regards to the water carried by the fire engine, I did not suggest that any fire department would depend solely on its engine's water supply to put out a fire; I was simply trying to enlighten the reader to the other sources of water available to a firefighter.

Finally, thanks for your attendance at our Straight Dope hosted chats. It's always a pleasure to chat with you.

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