Holly Koscinski used to like to multitask, until one evening last March when she was watching “The Great British Bake Off,” boiling water for pasta with Alfredo sauce and cleaning the microwave over her gas stove. As she leaned forward, her shirt went up in flames, and when she tried to pull it off, her arm caught fire, leading to third-degree burns over nearly one-fifth of her body. She spent the next 17 days in an intensive care unit.
Today, Koscinski, a 42-year-old elementary school speech therapist, hopes she can be a cautionary tale for friends and neighbors in her small town of Yerington, Nev.
It’s good timing. For much of the pandemic, while Instagram feeds have filled with “stress baking” photos of sourdough bread and cakes, burn units have filled up with injured cooks.
From Sacramento to Washington, D.C., and even as far away as Israel and Australia, more people have been spending more time in their kitchens, resulting in more fires and burns.
The number of accidents has been climbing with colder weather and the approach of Thanksgiving, traditionally the worst day of the year for kitchen fires. In 2018, with restaurants open and no lockdowns, cooking fires averaged 470 a day but on Thanksgiving Day shot up to 1,630, an increase of nearly 250 percent over average, according to the National Fire Protection Association. (On Christmas Day, the increase was 59 percent.)
“This is a time of high stress and cooking is one way to relieve it,” said burn surgeon Tina Palmieri, director of the Firefighters Burn Institute Regional Burn Center at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. “Unfortunately, it’s also a record year for burn injuries.”
At Palmieri’s center, one of the largest burn treatment facilities in the western United States, cooking accident burns have even outnumbered injuries from the major wildfires earlier this year, Palmieri said. Her team has treated 92 serious cooking-related burns since January vs. 79 in 2019, with a sixfold increase from March to May. An additional 122 patients have been treated in the emergency room so far this year.
At MedStar Washington Hospital Center, burn surgeon Laura Johnson said her team saw more than a 40 percent increase in cooking-fire burns during the first three months of the pandemic. About 50 patients with serious cooking-fire burns were admitted from August to October.
A moment’s distraction can lead to lifelong discomfort. Besides leaving scars, third-degree burns can cause nerve damage and decreased sensation, Palmieri said.
“One of the most difficult things that hardly anyone talks about is the itching,” she added. “It can continue no matter what medication we give for it.”
Koscinski’s experience is common, Palmieri said. A cook will get distracted and lose track of something on the stove. Loose, billowing clothing can catch fire. Or sometimes a pan of grease can ignite. The cook’s first instinct may be to grab the pan to take it outside, risking a spill of burning liquid on the way. Often people try to put out grease fires by throwing water on them, which can splatter hot oil.
“The last thing you want to do is throw water on it,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to encourage people to have something close at hand to smother the fire, like a lid, or baking soda.”
Palmieri and other U.S. burn doctors said older people and people who have been drinking have been overrepresented among their patients, although cooking fires can affect anyone.
“It’s been interesting to me how often the accidents with burns expose other problems,” said Johnson, at the MedStar Center, adding that a unit staff psychologist had been seeing many patients for anxiety.
In Melbourne, Heather Cleland, director of the Victorian Adult Burns Service at the Alfred, took to Facebook in April to warn of a “concerning” increase in patients with severe cooking-related burns.
“You don’t ever want to end up at The Alfred with a serious burns injury, but especially not now,” wrote Cleland, who has worried that burn patients may take up intensive-care beds needed for coronavirus victims.
Josef Haik, director of the Sheba Medical Center’s burn unit near Tel Aviv, which treats about 300 people a year, said he has seen more children than adults being burned in kitchens, a problem also cited by European doctors he talks to regularly on WhatsApp.
“The adults have been working while the kids have been alone in the house, or the kids are cooking and not used to it,” he said.
A widely viewed video on Reddit posted in the early weeks of the pandemic shows a couple dancing while cooking and knocking a pot off the stove. This month, a Reddit user reported that she had first-degree burns on her face after her hair caught on fire while cooking. “I took my skin and my God-given features for granted,” she wrote.
Long before covid-19, cooking has been the leading cause of reported home fires, in recent years causing an annual average of 172,900 such fires, with 550 deaths and 4,820 injuries. The National Fire Protection Association issued a prescient warning last March about the heightened danger of “distracted cooking” while more people are at home. This month, it publicized safety tips timed for Thanksgiving, including:
– Never leave the kitchen while cooking on the stovetop.
– When cooking items in the oven, stay home and check on them regularly.
– Keep flammable objects such as oven mitts, wooden utensils, food wrappers and towels away from direct contact with the cooking area.
– Avoid wearing long sleeves and loose clothes while cooking.
– If your oven catches fire, turn off the heat and keep the door closed. Only open the door once you are confident the fire is completely out. Call the fire department if you are in doubt.
– Keep children at least three feet away from the stove and areas where hot food or drink is being prepared or served.
Palmieri added her own warning to avoid using thin aluminum foil pans, which can crinkle and spill.
Johnson said anyone who has been seriously burned should seek care at a facility with burn expertise, even as she acknowledged that some may be trying to avoid trips to the doctor during the pandemic.
“Even small burns can have devastating implications if left untended,” she said.
Koscinski said she is cooking less often since her accident. Her eight-month-old wounds are still painful, and the sound of the clicking ignition on her stove makes her jumpy. In her small town and the school where she has worked for 17 years, most people know what happened to her, she said, adding that she will show the scars on her belly if asked.
“I’m telling everyone I know: Don’t get distracted while cooking,” she said, “or wherever there’s a fire. Period.”