Some late-night munchies sounded good, so the Edina resident began boiling a pot of rice on the stove after midnight and then "lost track of time."

Twenty minutes later, flames were licking the kitchen cabinets above the stove.

The resident tried fighting the fire with wet towels before a neighbor arrived with a fire extinguisher. Smoke had wafted through three floors of the apartment building. The July fire left the unit uninhabitable and did $10,000 to $15,000 worth of damage.

That 911 call -- "My kitchen is on fire!" -- is the most common emergency call made to fire departments in Minnesota and nationally.

And it's not just because the kitchen is where you use flames and heat. People increasingly are distracted or trying to do more than one thing at once, and forget that they have a pot bubbling on the stove or a pizza in the oven.

"People get interrupted, they think they can walk away from cooking bacon or French fries," said Edina Fire Marshal Tom Jenson. "People just don't realize how fast things can change. You raise the temperature of cooking oil to 680 degrees, and the vapors can ignite."

In 2009, cooking fires caused more than 3,200 structure fires in Minnesota -- 49 percent of the total, according to the state fire marshal's office.

While careless smoking is the single biggest cause of fire deaths in the state -- 10 deaths were caused by careless smoking in 2009, compared with just two for unattended cooking -- cooking fires do the most damage to buildings and cause the most injuries, said State Fire Marshal Jerry Rosendahl.

Some fires start when people stick metal containers in microwaves -- a no-no -- or burn something in a toaster. Turn on the wrong burner, and the potholder or box sitting on the stove top ignites. People brush against knobs, accidentally turning a burner on, or turn on the oven and forget that bags of potato chips were stored there.

Leave the kitchen? No

But most cooking fires result from unattended pots and pans that boil dry or overheat. Fire officials worry most about fires that spontaneously ignite when oil is overheated.

That happened in Roseville last year, when a resident who was trying a new recipe misread the instructions, heating the oil 100 degrees higher than recommended. It burst into flames.

"They were in the kitchen when it flashed, went up the kitchen cabinets and spilled over," said Roseville Fire Chief Tim O'Neill. "They were evacuated with no injuries, but it damaged the kitchen significantly."

O'Neill said he is amazed how many times he hears about people who begin cooking something on the stove and then leave the house to go to the store.

Richfield Fire Chief Brad Sveum said his firefighters have dealt with people who were out drinking or partying, came home and wanted something to eat, and then passed out or fell asleep while their food bubbled away on the stove.

Rosendahl, Jenson, O'Neill and Sveum agreed that the best way to handle a kitchen fire is to try to turn off the heat, cover the burning pot or pan, and call 911.

"I always tell people if the thought occurs, 'Should I call 911?', you should," Rosendahl said. "And then get out."

The professionals were not enthusiastic about fire extinguishers, which they said many people don't know how to use and often store dangerously close to the stove. People should be moving away from stoves in the event of fire, not toward them.

They were emphatic that you should never try to move a burning pot or pan to the sink. That could spread a fire.

Oil and water don't mix

The worst mistake -- and the most dangerous one -- is to try to put out an oil fire with water. Water makes burning oil spatter, spreading the blaze.

"Put a lid or cover on it, turn off the heat source and call 911 immediately," Rosendahl said.

The dangers of kitchen fires will be featured at the State Fair on Aug. 27, which is Governor's Fire Prevention Day. The St. Paul Fire Department will use a mobile kitchen to show what happens when 1 inch of oil overheats in a skillet, and what happens when water is thrown on it.

In general, the number of fires is going down in Minnesota. But because so many kitchen fires are confined to pots and pans and are quelled by residents, fire officials suspect there are many more kitchen fires than get reported.

Jenson confessed that even fire professionals aren't immune from rushing away from a stove to check on a child or answer the phone.

"I'm guilty of taking a quick dash away, and then you come back and think, 'Where did that last five minutes go?' " he said. "Society is running a lot faster today ... But when you have something on top of the stove, stay and watch it or turn it off."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380