Dear Mr. Dad: During the recent fires in Southern California, my kids seemed fascinated. It seemed like a a good time to talk to them about fire safety, but aside from “Don’t play with matches,” I have no idea how to go about it. What are the basic ideas I need to get across, and how can we make our home as fire-safe as possible?

A: Good for you for recognizing the need. Too few parents do, and the results are often tragic. Children set over 100,000 fires per year—one every five minutes. Over 4,000 Americans die each year as the result of fire, including more than 600 children. Property damage in 2006 alone totaled over $11 billion, and more people die in the U.S. as a result of fire than all natural disasters combined.

As responsible adults, we naturally want to reduce these risks as much as possible. Fortunately there are a lot of ways you can greatly cut down the likelihood that someone in your family will end up in those sobering statistics.

· Install smoke detectors on every level in your home and familiarize your children with the sound of the alarm.

· Test each detector each month and replace the batteries twice a year. An easy way to remember when is to do it when you change the clocks for daylight savings time. Completely replace the smoke detector every ten years.

· Have at least two fire extinguishers in the home, including one in the kitchen. Check monthly to ensure they are properly charged.

· Have your fireplace and furnace checked and cleaned regularly. Clean your stove vent filter as needed. Change your dryer’s lint filter after every load and make sure that the exhaust hose is not kinked.

· Keep matches, lighters, and lighter fluids out of reach of children, preferably in locked cabinets.

· Talk to your children about the dangers of playing with matches. Be specific about the uncontrollable nature of fire. Encourage them to bring any found matches to you and praise them when they do so.

· Children who play with matches most often do so in bedrooms, in closets, and under beds. Check these locations periodically for burned matches and/or the lingering smell of smoke. If you find something, talk to your child gently but firmly about the fact that there is no safe way to play with fire.

· Practice “Stop, Drop, and Roll” to extinguish fire on clothing.

· Create and talk about your family’s fire exit plan. Be sure the kids know of two exit paths, especially from their bedrooms. In most cases, one of the exits will be a window. Be sure children know how to open the window and remove (or kick out) the screen. If there is a significant drop, chain ladders are available to install at the window ledge.

· Practice your exit plan. Have one parent hold the test button for a smoke detector to give the drill a sense of urgency. Practice crawling low beneath smoke and feeling doors for heat before opening. Designate a meeting place outside at least 100 feet from the home.

· Teach children not to hide from firefighters. Find a photo online of a firefighter in full gear and oxygen mask so your kids will know not to be afraid.

For more fire safety and prevention information, take a look at the U.S. Fire Administration’s website, Just a few minutes gathering information, planning, and talking to your kids can prevent a heartbreaking disaster.