By: Edward L. Blais, JD, CIC, CPIA

Imagine your curtains start to catch fire from a nearby candle. What do you do? 

You’d probably race to the kitchen, fill up a cup with water, and throw it on the fire.

And you’d be wrong. 

A small candle fire may seem like small potatoes – enough for you and your tap water extinguisher – but once you throw water on it could turn into a big problem. In fact, it could cause the flames to expand explosively. 

That’s what happened when some reporters from CBS Pittsburgh simulated dousing a candle fire with flames. Check out their video here, which shows the small fire quickly igniting into a blaze when water is thrown on it. CBS Pittsburgh did its report after a local news anchor in Texas tried to extinguish a small candle fire in her kitchen with water, leading to severe burns on her hand and thigh. 

Water is the wrong response to candle fires because water and wax don’t mix. Instead of putting out the flames, water just spreads them around, causing the blaze to expand exponentially. Incidentally, the same principle applies to cooking fires where oil is being used since water and oil don’t mix either. 

Instead of throwing water on it, use the candle lid or snuffer to extinguish the flames. 

If the fire seems too big for those measures, some other alternatives include:

Cover it with a fire blanket. These are made of fire retardant materials and are effective in putting out fires that have just started. With some of them available for as low as $20, fire blankets are an affordable and useful fire protection tool for homeowners, especially those who may not be comfortable using a fire extinguisher. 

Throw a moist blanket on it. The blanket won’t catch fire, and will prevent oxygen from getting to the flames. This option may be particularly helping with larger fires associated with cooking. 

Use a fire extinguisher. Make sure you are using a chemical fire extinguisher, such as the ABC dry chemical extinguisher (see this post for more information). 

Pour some baking soda on it. In the absence of a fire extinguisher, baking soda is a suitable alternative for smaller fires. Plus, if the fire is in the kitchen, it’s something you’re more likely to have close at hand. 

The above approaches will also work for any cooking fires involving grease. Remember, the goal is to remove the source of oxygen, so anything that achieves that without making the fire worse will work. 

Whenever you are using a candle, the National Candle Association recommends the following to prevent a fire.

  • Never leave a candle unattended.
  • Never burn a candle on or near anything that can catch fire.
  • Keep candles out of the reach of children and pets.
  • Never touch or move a candle while it is burning or while the wax is liquefied.
  • Don’t burn a candle all the way down. 
  • Place burning candles at least three inches apart from one another.
  • Extinguish a candle if the flame becomes too high or flickers repeatedly. Let the candle cool, trim the wick, and check for unwanted drafts before re-lighting.
  • Never use a candle as a night light or while you may fall asleep.
  • Be very careful if using candles during a power outage.

For more on candle fire safety, see these tips from the National Candle Association. 

The risk of candle fires should be taken seriously as there about 20 a day, according to the National Fire Protection Association. We hope these tips allow you to stay safe and protect your home.

Note: Additional sources included How to Make Candles, Smart 911, and Inside Edition.