Next week, Oct. 6-12, is National Fire Prevention Week. The National Fire Prevention Association’s theme is “Prevent kitchen fires.” That’s not exactly a catchy phrase. Nonetheless, cooking is the leading cause of fires in the home and the leading cause of fire injuries.

Seldom a week goes by that we don’t respond to one or more incidents of “food on the stove.” And lest you think of these as minor incidents, they are often anything but minor.

A pot of burned food on the stove can produce enough smoke in your home to require all the walls and ceilings to need washing and repainting. Average price tag: About $4,000. Your clothes in any closets left open may need special cleaning. Average cost: $1,000. And upholstered furniture may have to be replaced if the odor can’t be removed by a professional restoration company. You should check your homeowners’ or renters’ insurance policy coverage.

So how can you avoid such a huge hassle? It is painfully simple: Cooking is like driving. It’s a full-time job, during which I highly discourage any distractions. While texting and driving can be fatal, taking a phone call or answering the doorbell while cooking can result in a residential fire. It is just too easy to lose track of time when a pesky door-to-door salesman won’t let you retreat or your best friend is in the midst of a personal crisis that requires your full emotional support. Meanwhile, the French fries are erupting into a volcano of flames that will forever change your taste for potatoes.

It is all preventable, and here’s how: Reserve your cooking time to be as undisturbed as possible. Let those phone calls go to voice mail. Ignore the salesman at the door. Ensure your kids have an activity that will keep them occupied until dinner is ready.

Next, I highly recommend that if you must leave the kitchen for any reason, do one of two things: Take a kitchen utensil (a spatula or large spoon) with you so you are constantly reminded that something is on the stove, or set a timer for the heating process so you will be called back to the kitchen when it needs attention. The best advice is to simply not leave the kitchen when any cooking appliance is in use.

Another cause of kitchen fires is heating cooking oil too quickly. Some cooks turn the burner on high to heat oil quickly. The problem occurs when you are distracted and forget to reduce the heat to a normal cooking temperature. I highly recommend setting the burner only to the temperate at which you normally cook. That way, combustible oils will be less likely to ignite.

What should you do if you suddenly see tonight’s dinner ablaze? If the fire remains in the pan or pot, simply slide a lid on it and turn off the heat. Do NOT pick it up and move it to the sink. Cold water on hot oil means an explosive flash fire that could splash hot, flaming oil all over the kitchen and all over you.

Baking soda is a great remedy for a small spot fire outside the pan or pot. Of course, you should have a home fire extinguisher near the kitchen in case the fire extends into the cabinets or across the counter. If you are in doubt of your ability to fight any fire, simply get everyone out and call 911.

Now, these recommendations are not coming from a trained chef. They’re coming from an experienced firefighter. I am much more interested in your safety than in the quality of tonight’s dinner.

Greg Nelson is chief of the Hillsboro Fire Department.

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