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Candle Fires

Candle usage in the United States has skyrocketed over the last 20 years and candle manufacturing is now a $2 billion industry. According to the National Candle Association, seven out of 10 households use candles. The majority of these consumers use candles one to three times a week.

Decorative and fragranced candles may be an attractive addition to your home décor, but if used improperly, they can be a serious fire hazard. According to the National Fire Protection Association Journal article, "Candle Fires on the Rise", residential fires caused by candles have more than doubled during the past decade.
In addition to being a fire hazard, improperly used candles can generate a significant amount of soot. This soot can damage the walls, floors and ceilings of your home as well as your personal belongings.

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.

Gel Candles
Gel candles have become increasingly popular. Their beauty and long-burning characteristics are two reasons for their popularity. An eight-ounce gel candle will burn a hundred hours or more, creating increased injury and fire risks beyond that of regular candles.

The concern about gel candles is not so much with the gel itself, but rather with (1) the type of wick used, (2) the container the candle is set in, (3) the embedding of combustible materials in the gel, and (4) the amount of fragrance which is added to the gel.

Cotton and paper-cored wicks are generally not used in gel candles because of their tendency to sag or lean over during the manufacturing and burning process. Zinc-cored wicks are used because of their ability to stand straight in the hot gel during both manufacturing and burning.

Wick length and placement are important for candle safety. Wicks should be trimmed to ¼ inch above the gel surface. Long wicks create a very tall flame that burns in an irregular pattern. If the wick is not placed properly, it causes localized overheating of the container and a liquid pool of wax. Such conditions can cause uneven temperature dissipation and possible cracking of the container.

Containers should not be combustible. Plastic or wood products should not be used. Gel candles can be created in almost any type of glassware as long as it can withstand heat. Gel works best in containers between 2 and 3 inches in diameter, and is not recommended for use in containers over 4 inches in diameter.

Larger containers will frequently use multiple wicks. Multiple wicks mean multiple flames, and the more flame the hotter the melted pool of wax; thus the greater danger of the container cracking. Glass containers with narrow mouths are not recommended due to the closer proximity of the flame to the wall of the container.

Embedding of Objects
Combustible materials such as wood and plastic should never be embedded into a gel candle. Only non-combustible materials; like glass marbles, rocks, or shells; should be used.

Fragrance in gel candles plays a significant role in the safety of these types of candles and has been a major factor in candle fires. The fragrance needs to be compatible with the solubility of the gel. There are fragrances that are formulated specifically for gel candles. The most important factor in the fragrance selection is the flashpoint. Most fragrances have flash points of 140º F and higher. A preferred fragrance flashpoint would be 170º F or higher.

Flashpoint is the temperature at which a material ignites.

Adding too much fragrance can clog the wick causing the candle to burn improperly. In addition to selecting the correct type of fragrance, it is important that the fragrance be completely mixed into the gel before it is poured into the container.

Incomplete mixing of the fragrance can cause an irregular burning flame.

Many candles have been recalled due to the fire hazard created by their design. To see what products have been recalled, go to the CPSC web site. Use their search page and look for candle recalls.

Given the number of deaths and the amount of property damage, candles warrant special care and safety precautions when being used.

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