Your basement’s a great place for the kids to make noise and for you to store all the stuff that doesn’t fit in your house or garage. But it has a dark side. On TV, creepy basements are the scenes of choice for murders and mayhem. But the real basement hazard for homeowners, not to mention firefighters, is fire.

Basement fires are extremely dangerous, for both firefighters and residents, according to UL, a global independent safety science company. In fact, a large majority of firefighter deaths and injuries occur while fighting basement fires, according to Fire Engineering, an industry magazine. So what is it about basements that makes them such a fire hazard?

Since the 1990's, more and more wood-frame homes use engineered wood products, such as plywood, in basement ceilings. Lighter in weight and less likely to warp than the solid wood beams used in older homes, engineered wood is popular with homebuilders, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Unfortunately, it burns faster, according to NIOSH. As a result, ceilings tend to collapse more quickly during a fire — and firefighters working on the first floor can fall through the floor and into the fire below.

For residents of the home, the big danger is being in the basement when a fire breaks out. If the stairway or door leading to the first floor is blocked or on fire, that’s a problem, according to John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at UL. “Many basements have just one stairway and the windows are too small for access,” he says. “How would you get out?”

Related: Quiz: Are You Prepared for a House Fire?

Protect yourself in case of a basement fire

1. Look at your exits, and make sure they're up to code. Most basements should have at least one door, window or other “emergency escape and rescue opening” that leads directly to the outside of the building, according to the International Building Code, upon which many municipalities base their local building codes.

The opening must be no less than 5.7 square feet in size and no more than 44 inches from the floor. In addition, you must be able to open it from the inside without keys or tools. If you install security bars or grills, they also have to be easy to open.

Window well(Photo: International Association of Certified Home Inspectors)
If you have a window well, it must have at least 9 square feet of ground space, including 3 feet on each side. If it sits at least 44 inches below ground, you need to install a permanently-affixed ladder or steps.

This is where modern homes may actually be safer. Older buildings may have smaller and less convenient exit windows. But even newer homes may have been remodeled incorrectly at some point in the past. So it's in your best interest to take a closer look at the exits and enlarge them if necessary.

Related: How to Survive a Fire

2. Keep a ladder near the window. “Keep a ladder in the basement so that you can climb up to the window,” suggests Drengenberg.

3. Make your basement part of your fire escape drill. Hold practice drills to make sure all family members can easily get through the emergency opening. “If the windows are too small that you can't get through, you can get stuck in the window, and that's never good,” says Drengenberg. “Or, an elderly person might not be able to escape. So, perhaps that person shouldn't spend a lot of time in the basement.”

4. Move flammable materials away from the furnace. Move or get rid of combustible clutter, such as paint, oily rags, varnish, gasoline and cardboard boxes. “During summer, the furnace isn't running, so people tend to pile up things like stacks of old newspapers or winter clothing,” says Drengenberg. “But the furnace might come on while you're away on vacation.”

He recalls the day a TV station in New Jersey gave him a tour of a “nice Colonial home” while filming a news report on home safety hazards. When he poked his head into the cellar, he was shocked at what he found. “There were boxes of Christmas decorations piled right next to and behind the furnace,” he says. “That was a red flag to me.”

One more tip from Drengenberg: If you place smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in the basement, and you should, keep them at least 10 to 15 feet away from your furnace or gas water heater. “Otherwise you get nuisance alarms,” he says.

Related: 8 Flammable Liquids Lying Around Your House

David Arv Bragi is a freelance journalist and marketing consultant. He has been writing about health and safety issues since the 1990s and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.