How To Put Out an Electrical Fire

Updated: Jul. 06, 2023

Learn how to extinguish an electrical fire — but know your limits and stay safe.

Broken windows. Charred curtains. Blinding, choking smoke. Whether you’ve personally seen the devastating effects of an electrical fire or seen the dazed victims on the local news, you know electrical fires are dangerous.

In the U.S., fires caused by electrical distribution (things like electrical wiring, cords, plugs and lights) or lighting killed 430 people per year from 2015 to 2019, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Even when people could escape the fires, their homes often did not. These devastating fires cause $1.3 billion in property damage each year on average.

Nearly three-quarters of the deaths and total fires and 65% of the property damage were attributed to a particular type of electrical malfunction, a phenomenon called electrical arcing. Loose electrical connections, frayed cords and defective electrical insulation can allow electric current to “jump” between the conductors instead of staying in the circuit. If you’ve got combustibles in the vicinity, that’s a recipe for fire.

What Does an Electrical Fire Smell Like?

Electrical fires are often described as smelling like burning rubber or plastic. That’s because they’re most commonly ignited by the insulation on the conductors, according to the NFPA. Electrical insulation protects the conductors, bringing the power to your appliance or wall receptacle. But it’s not fireproof.

An acrid smell isn’t the only thing to watch for. Smoke, sparks or flame coming from appliances or receptacles and noticeable scorch marks are immediate signals of an ongoing or past electrical fire.

How To Put Out an Electrical Fire

If you see an electrical fire happening in real time, how to put it out (even if you can) depends on the size of the fire and your competency and comfort levels. If it’s a large fire involving major appliances, or one that’s already spread to surrounding combustible materials, don’t even try it. Warn others in your building, leave immediately and call 911.

A homeowner may handle a fire involving a small appliance or tool, but only if you feel comfortable and safe doing so. Call 911 and note your escape route before attempting to fight a small, contained electrical fire. If the fire spreads or you can’t turn off the power, flee and warn others.

If you see flames coming from a single small appliance or tool, do the following:

  • De-power the appliance: Unplug it if you can reach it safely. If the plug is involved or you can’t get to it, go quickly to your electrical panel and turn off the power at the main breaker. Robbing the appliance of power will stop the source of the sparking or arcing that started the fire.
  • Use a Class ABC fire extinguisher: But only if you’re trained to use it. Electrical fires are Class “C” fires, and an ABC fire extinguisher will put them out by smothering them with a dry chemical. Class “A” stands for wood, paper and other solid combustibles, and Class “B” for flammable liquids and grease fires. As the name suggests, Class ABC extinguishers put out all three.
  • Use baking soda: If you don’t have a fire extinguisher and the fire is really small, smother it by pouring baking soda over it until the fire is out.

If using a fire extinguisher, read the instructions first, even if you think you know them. It’s important not to forget any steps in the heat of the moment. When you’re ready, put out the fire using the PASS method:

  • Pull the pin;
  • Aim at the base of the fire;
  • Squeeze the trigger;
  • Sweep from side to side.

Never Do These Two Things When You Have an Electrical Fire

  1. First and foremost: Never attempt to extinguish an electrical fire with water. It won’t put out electrical fires that are still energized, and you risk severe shock or death. Use a Class C fire extinguisher or baking soda on an electrical fire — water and electricity don’t mix!
  2. Don’t try to fight a fire of unknown origin, or one that already involves surrounding materials. Electrical fires in your walls, attic or other inaccessible areas could set framing or structural members on fire. That’s the other most common item ignited in home fires involving electrical malfunction, according to the NFPA.

How To Prevent Electrical Fires

Electrical fires can be devastating, so it’s imperative you take electrical safety seriously. Follow these safety tips to reduce your risk.

  • Replace appliance cords that are frayed or worn.
  • Don’t ignore flickering lights or circuit breakers that frequently trip, and watch for other signs of electrical stress in your home — warm cords, switches or receptacles; arcs or sparks when you plug something in; buzzing sounds or discoloration of electrical devices. Have all of these checked out by a licensed electrician.
  • Do not run extension cords under rugs, carpeting or around or over sharp objects or corners.
  • Don’t overload circuits, or use so-called “outlet extenders” that let you plug multiple appliances into one receptacle.
  • Use lamps (aka light bulbs) that match the wattage of the light fixture.
  • Use extension cords as temporary wiring only. Add circuits or receptacle outlets if you need a permanent wiring solution.
  • Have electrical work inspected and permitted, as required.