SACRAMENTO, CA - No matter how well you know your way around the kitchen, a stove top grease fire can catch even the most experienced cook by surprise.
But, the wrong decision on how to respond could be a deadly mistake.
Wille Mae Coleman had made fried chicken hundreds of times, but one day last August, the 75-year-old died frying up her dinner.
By the time firefighters reached her, she had serious burns on 70 percent of her body. Her son remembers getting a phone call and racing to the hospital just to watch her slip away.
"I remember what she smelled like, I remember what she looked like, and that is no vision that any child wants to remember of their parents," Don Coleman said.
There are more residential kitchen fires in California each year than fires caused by candles, heating units and arson combined. Grease fires are particularly troublesome. Sacramento Metro Fire said the proper way to respond to one is by covering the pot or pan with a lid or cookie sheet is one way to bring a grease fire to a halt. An oven gloved hand can turn off the stove, although the pot or pan needs to sit for 30 minutes to be considered safe.
Since oil only catches fire at 600 degrees or above, the worst thing you can do for a grease fire is pour water onto the flames.
"When that water hits the oil, at that temperature, it turns to steam immediately," Metro Fire firefighter Kevin Summers said. "When water converts to steam it expands about 1,700 times its original volume. One cup of water expands into 1,700 cups of steam. It takes the burning oil with it and spreads the fire around."
When standing in close proximity to that fire, the burning, oily steam sticks to skin.
"You have some very serious burns on your body and its now spread the fire to other parts of your home," Summers said.
In Wille Mae's case, firefighters believe she tried to transfer the burning pan to the kitchen sink and caught her clothes on fire. Firefighters said covering the pan and alerting people to get out of the house is the best way to deal with any grease fire.
There are products you can purchase that detect and prevent grease fires.
One called "Stove Top Fire Stop" involves installing a canister above the stove. The canister has a wick that catches during a fire and discharges a fire retardant. The product works so well that some states require them in rental properties that don't have sprinkler systems.
The product is not readily available in the Sacramento area, but can be special ordered through a home or hardware store.