The kitchen can be the best part of any home — a gathering place for family and friends, and the site of fantastic culinary expression.

And it is also one of the most dangerous rooms in the house.

Cooking is the leading cause of home fires, causing 44 percent of all fires in the home. In 2011 — the most recent statistics available — cooking was involved in about 156,300 home fires in the United States, resulting in 470 deaths, 5,390 injuries and $1 billion in property damage, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Tucson is keeping pace with national statistics, according to local fire fighting agencies. To help reduce potentially deadly incidents, fire departments across the nation are focusing on reducing kitchen fires during fire prevention month, which takes place in October.

The best advice for preventing kitchen fires?

“Never abandon food that’s cooking,” said Captain Adam Goldberg, spokesperson for Northwest Fire District.

“We respond to a number of food-on-the-stove incidents where neighbors, especially in apartment complexes, hear an alarm, smell smoke and even see smoke coming from the doorway of a neighbor and we’ll find a pot cooking on the stove,” he said.

Pinto beans are a common cause of kitchen fires in Tucson. “They need to simmer all day, and if the water evaporates, the beans burn and a fire can ensue,” Goldberg said. He suggests cooking beans in a Crock Pot.

Cooking oil is another common — and potentially deadly — cause of a kitchen fire. It can take just a moment away from the stove for a fire to start, said Captain Barrett Baker, spokesperson for the Tucson Fire Department.

“You cannot step away from heating oil,” Baker said. “It’s like watching children around swimming pools. So often with a kitchen fire, somebody leaves and they might be planning on being gone for 30 seconds and they are gone for five minutes and their kitchen is on fire.”

An oil fire can turn into a fire ball, which burns cabinets and can spread quickly.

Moving a flaming pan off the burner can also cause serious injuries. Keep a lid and oven mitts close by — but not on the actual stovetop — and if a fire starts, remove the pan from the heat using the mitts and cover the flames with a lid, Baker said.

Never spray water on an oil fire. It will only make the situation worse.

Pay attention to what is near your stove, said Captain Grant Cesarek, spokesperson for Rural/Metro Fire Department.

“That towel hanging on the bar of your oven — did you use it to clean up a bit of olive oil, which makes it flammable? Is the cabinet above your microwave stacked with chemicals or cooking oils and other flammable objects? A small fire that works its way up the wall can end up a major fire if you give it more fuel,” Cesarek said.

An investment in two fire extinguishers — one for the kitchen and one for the garage — can go a long way in preventing a house fire.

Contact local freelance writer Gabrielle Fimbres at