Once human error is reduced, the next step is to examine the fabric of the house and the condition of its appliances. Bad wiring is a common cause of fire in old houses, Jennings says. Knob and tube electrical systems, when in good condition and not overloaded, are fundamentally safe. But many older homes have been subject to an endless variety of bad electrical work over the years; an inspection is always warranted.
Water leaks can cause fires by creating short circuits as moisture hits wires and electrical devices. Old appliances can be risks, as can improperly vented dryers. Extension cords are an all-too-common source of disaster. Use them with caution; make sure they are appropriate for the task at hand. Putting an extension cord beneath a carpet is incredibly dangerous, and has caused damage or complete destruction to many a historic structure.
Chimneys and wood stoves are another risk. Inspect chimneys annually, especially if they are connected to a wood stove; creosote buildup is a fire hazard mitigated through regular cleaning. Use adequate fire protection anywhere a wood stove is set; check your manual or call the manufacturer for guidelines, which vary by stove. You may need a permit to install a stove; not getting one could create problems with your homeowner’s insurance. Even regular furnaces should never stand alone—they should be surrounded by some type of fire-resistant enclosure, even if only drywall. Keep materials and debris a safe distance away from furnaces as well, at least 36″.