Cooking a turkey is not quite as simple as toasting bread or microwaving a frozen dinner. With that in mind, it would not come as much of a surprise to find out that the one day many Americans prepare a large meal, turkey included, would have more cooking fires than any other day of the year.
The Thanksgiving holiday is no stranger to rumors. One popular claim is that tryptophan in turkey makes people especially tired. However, that's a myth.
As for the rumor about fires, it's true. In this story, we'll provide data to back up the main claim and also provide several cooking safety tips from an authoritative source.
The Peak Day for Fires
On Nov. 11, 2021, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) published an advisory about cooking fires on Thanksgiving Day, saying that the holiday had historically been the peak day for cooking fires being reported in the U.S. In the past, Thanksgiving Day had more than three times as many fires when compared to a typical day of the year.
"Thanksgiving is a hectic holiday that involves lots of cooking and distractions, which can make it easy to lose sight of what's on the stove and in the oven," said Lorraine Carli, NFPA's vice president of Outreach and Advocacy. "Unattended cooking is the leading cause of home cooking fires, so we strongly encourage people to keep a close eye on what they're cooking and to minimize the likelihood of getting distracted."
According to NFPA data, cooking was the leading cause of reported home structure fires and civilian fire injuries and the second-leading cause of civilian fire deaths and direct property damage, on an annual average from 2015 to 2019. On Thanksgiving Day alone, an estimated 1,400 home cooking fires were reported to U.S. fire departments in 2019, reflecting a 228 percent increase over the daily average.
Similarly, the U.S. Fire Administration, a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), published that, "For each year from 2017 to 2019, an estimated average of 2,300 residential building fires were reported to fire departments in the U.S. on Thanksgiving Day." According to their data, the fires caused an estimated annual average of five deaths, 25 injuries, and $26 million in property loss.
So, how can people reduce the chance of a fire? The NFPA published a list of Thanksgiving Day safety tips, including a few recommendations that some readers may not have thought of. For example, one of the tips said to keep a lid nearby for pans as a smart way to put out fires, as opposed to using water or a fire extinguisher, neither of which are recommended.
- Never leave the kitchen while cooking on the stovetop. Some types of cooking, especially those that involve frying or sautéing with oil, need continuous attention.
- When cooking a turkey, remain at home and check it regularly.
- Make use of timers to keep track of cooking times, particularly for foods that require longer cook times.
- Keep things that can catch fire like oven mitts, wooden utensils, food wrappers, and towels at least three feet away from the cooking area.
- Avoid long sleeves and hanging fabrics that can come in contact with a heat source.
- Always cook with a lid beside your pan. If you have a fire, slide the lid over the pan and turn off the burner. Do not remove the cover because the fire could start again. Let the pan cool for a long time. Never throw water or use a fire extinguisher on the fire.
- For an oven fire, turn off the heat and keep the door closed. Only open the door once you're confident the fire is completely out, standing to the side as you do. If you have any doubts or concerns, contact the fire department for assistance.
- Keep children at least three feet away from the stove. Kids should also stay away from hot foods and liquids, as steam or splash from these items could cause severe burns.
The NFPA also added that they "strongly discourage" the use of turkey fryers due to the dangers they pose. "For a safe alternative, NFPA recommends grocery stores, food retailers, and restaurants that sell deep-fried turkey," the NFPA advisory said.
In the past, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) posted a video to show how quickly a turkey fryer, when not properly operated, can explode into a fireball.
The brief video included two key tips, saying to not use a turkey fryer in a garage or on a porch and to not overfill the container.