Fire Safety for Jews: Hanukkah Edition
LABA Fellow Willie Zabar writes about fire safety surrounding Hanukkah.
We as Jews are defined by our traditions. My favorite of these is survival. As the oft-told summary of most Jewish holidays goes, “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” On Hanukkah in particular we celebrate by lighting candles and cooking fried foods. But these celebrations of survival in the past can sometimes jeopardize our ability to survive in the present.
It is for this reason that we must take special steps to ensure our family’s safety during Hanukkah, because burning the latkes shouldn’t mean burning down our home!
CANDLE AND MENORAH SAFETY
The most obvious Hanukkah fire hazard is the lighting of candles. December is the peak time of year for home candle fires according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when lighting candles for Hanukkah and the Sabbath.
- Never leave lit candles unattended.
- Keep open flames away from anything that could catch fire like drapes, cabinets, and bedding. The FDNY recommends a buffer of at least 4 feet.
- Make sure candles are secure in their holders. This can be accomplished by purchasing the right sized candle for your menorah and by melting the bottom of the candle to cement it in place. Don’t forget the Shammash!
- Make sure to soak used matches in water before throwing them away to avoid trash fires.
- Choose a menorah that is made of material that can’t catch fire such as metal or ceramic. This may sound obvious but last year my Grandma bought a menorah adorned with leaves and moss. She claimed it was flame-resistant (spoiler: it wasn’t).
COOKING TIPS FOR FRIED FOODS
Ok, you’ve successfully lit the menorah without destroying your home. Mazel tov! Now it’s time to fry up some traditional Hanukkah foods. Whether you’re making latkes, jelly donuts, or buñuelos, follow these tips to minimize your risk of fire and injury.
- Make sure a grownup is in the kitchen whenever the stove is on. Stand by your pan!
- Keep paper towels, cutting boards, and other combustible material away from the stove. Just this week I discovered that my neighbors were keeping a wooden cutting board atop 2 of their stove burners. Guess what I found on the underside of the cutting board? Scorch marks.
- Turn the handle of your frying pan towards the wall so it doesn’t hang over the edge of the stove. This will help prevent anyone from accidentally tipping it over and getting burned. Especially important when children or pets are present.
Whoops! You got distracted by a call from cousin Shloime and now the latkes are on fire. Don’t plotz! Cover the pot.
Here’s what to do (after hanging up on Shloime).
HOW TO EXTINGUISH A COOKING OIL FIRE
- DON’T USE WATER!
- This is just about the worst thing you can do in the event of a cooking oil fire. Water is heavier than oil, so it will fall down to the bottom of the pan where it will instantly vaporize. Going from liquid to steam makes the water expand to 1,700 times its original volume! An explosive cloud of steam will carry droplets of burning oil up and away from the pan, resulting in a massive fireball that can burn you and set your home on fire.
- Turn off the stove burner if it is safe to do so. This will remove the heat source feeding the fire.
- Smother the flame. Smother it like your parents smothered you.
- Isolating the oil from the surrounding oxygen will starve the fire and make it go out. There are a few ways to smother a cooking oil fire:
- Use a lid to smother the fire.
- If no lid is available, you can use another frying pan or a cookie sheet. Just make sure not to spill the oil.
- Place a wet dish towel over the pan.
- Wet the fabric and wring it out so that it is damp but not dripping wet.
- Leave the fire covered until the pan is totally cooled down. Removing the lid prematurely can cause the fire to reignite.
- Only use a dry chemical fire extinguisher as a last resort.
- Extinguishers rated for Class B fires can extinguish cooking oil fires, but their pressurized contents run the risk of blowing burning oil out of the pan and spreading the fire. If you have to use one, do it from far enough back that the oil does not become airborne.
- Use baking soda to stop the fire (NOT baking powder).
- Baking soda can help fight grease fires, but you will need a lot of it.
- DON’T use baking powder or flour on a fire. They can make things worse.
- DON’T move the pan.
- This can splash burning oil out of the pan and cause more mishegas.
Despite your best efforts, your home is on fire. Oy vey! What now?
EVACUATING IN THE EVENT OF A FIRE
- GET OUT! Gey avek!
- Gather everyone from the home and leave.
- Don’t stop to gather any belongings.
- Close the door behind you!
- Closing (but not locking) the door to your home on the way out both helps isolate the fire from spreading and deprives it of the oxygen it needs to grow.
- If you live in an apartment, alert your neighbors on your way out of the building.
- Call 911 from a safe distance.
Congratulations, you survived Hanukkah!
Fire safety isn’t something we should only think about during an emergency. I think we should fold safety practices into our existing traditions.
- Celebrate the exodus by having a home fire drill.
- Swap out the batteries in your smoke detector twice a year, once on Rosh Hashanah and once on Passover.
- Carry forth the Jewish emphasis on education by learning whether you live in a Fireproof or Non-Fireproof Building.
- Most importantly of all, make an emergency plan for your family. How will you get out of your home? Where will you meet?
Hanukkah is a time to celebrate the victories and sacrifices made by our ancestors in securing our people’s survival. By working to improve the safety of our homes, we can help ensure the same for our families and for generations to come.
Willie Zabar is a comedian and fire safety professional from New York City.
Join Willie for a comedic Hanukkah fire safety performance at the 14th Street Y on Saturday, December 7, at 4:00 pm. Ages 4+ and free to all. More information and reservations here.