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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Surviving a Home Fire

The best way to survive a home fire is to prevent it, therefore this post talks about how to prevent a home fire first, followed by tips on surviving a fire after it starts and finish with tips on surviving after a home fire.


There are lots of fire hazards in every home, some more than others. I happen to be a pyromaniac, so I have lots and lots of fire hazards in my home, yet I’ve never had a single home fire. The reason for this is that I take precautions, use common sense, and am careful when I use fires. Here are the precautions I take with the fire hazards in my home and the homes of family and friends:

Matches are a common tool around my house. I prefer strike anywhere matches (which, by the way, are getting very hard to find). I have several boxes in the kitchen, some in the bathroom, the living room, the bedroom, the laundry room, the library, and the workshop outside. Every child (and quite a few adults) who enter my home are well-schooled in respecting the power of matches. They are taught how to use matches, what precautions to take with them: blocking wind, keeping flammables at a distance…except what we intend to burn with the match, putting the spent hot match in a dish of sand or dousing it in a dish of water, keeping the unlit matches well away from the striking match (hard to do when all you can find are those dangerous “strike on box” matches), and keeping the flaming end of the match away from flesh and hair.

Candles come under censure rather too often for my liking, considering how useful they are. They are banned in dorms among people who are old enough to know how to handle candles. First, lit candles should always be in a sturdy candleholder, one that will not tip over easily. It should be placed on a stable surface well away from curtains and other dangling flammables. Bobeches should be used with drip candles and taper candles. A bobeche is a collar placed around the candle to catch dripping wax. It is always made of a non-flammable material, usually glass. Candles in wall sconces should be encased in a glass chimney so it doesn’t flicker or spark against the wall, and those sconces should be hung where they won’t get flapped by the edges of blowing curtains, moving clothing, or hair. If you have cats, the candles should be placed in a glass chimney tall enough that the cat can’t accidentally set its tail or whiskers on fire from the flames – and they should be set so they can’t be knocked over easily. Candles should never be left to burn out. If you burn lots of candles, always make a check when you leave a room or leave the house or go to bed and make sure all candles are fully extinguished. Candles burned outdoors need to be placed where they won’t get blown out by the wind (high chimneys help with that) and where they won’t set anything on fire like overhanging plants or pets.

Oil lamps are safer than candles and can be just as romantic. Like candles, though, they should always be placed in stable places where they won’t get knocked over accidentally or hung on walls where curtains and such won’t fall over the top of their chimneys. And yes, always put the chimney back on an oil lamp after lighting it. Clean the oil lamp chimneys regularly, particularly if there is soot buildup. You can save the soot for making ink. Keep the wick well trimmed so you don’t waste the wick r start an unwelcome fire.

Electric space heaters cause a lot of fires because people are careless with them. These are the easiest devices to care for in preventing fires. Make sure they are at least 3 feet away from anything flammable in front of them, keep at least 12 inches clearance around the sides and back, and don’t have anything hanging over the top of them. Make sure they are on a stable surface and make sure flammables like curtains and blankets won’t fall on them. Turn them off when you leave the house. Don’t let them run for more than 12 hours at a time, so buy extras and switch them out. If you have to use space heaters as your primary heating source, gather everyone into one room and heat only that room. That way you won’t forget to turn it off. I prefer to place space heaters up high, out of reach of pets and children and use a ceiling fan to blow the heat down lower. The floor’s going to be cold anyway if it’s not carpeted.

Most modern electric appliances have automatic shut-offs – curling irons, coffee pots, irons, hair dryers… Even if they do have automatic shut-offs, I unplug them. Some of them continue to draw small amounts of electricity even when shut off and I resent wasting the power on something I’m not using. We don’t really need clocks and timers on every single device we own so it shouldn’t matter if the clock is correct on them.

Oil and gas space heaters were once more common than they are now, but you can still find them and some are regaining popularity. If you have an open flame gas space heater, make sure you have at least a 4 foot clearance around the front and sides, nothing above it, and at least 2 feet of clearance behind it. Set it on a non-flammable surface and make sure the rest of the room it’s in is a non-skid, non-slippery room. I once slid into one of these when I was a child on my mother’s highly waxed and polished and slippery wood floor. Put skid proof rugs down outside the reach of them so children have stopping power before they skid into such heaters. Oil ones are safer than open flame gas ones, but they still get really hot, so exercise the same distance requirements and skid-proofing around them.

Radiant baseboard heaters are, in my opinion, ineffective in warming a room, so I don’t have them. If you do, don’t put furniture in front of them as this not only causes a fire hazard, it reduces what little effectiveness the heaters have.

Faulty wiring is another common cause of home fire. Avoid extension cords, especially for appliances the draw heat like toasters, toaster ovens, space heaters, crock pots, curling irons, hair dryers, irons, and the like. If you must use extension cords, make sure the plug where the extension cord meets the appliance cord is away from flammables and water. Unplug the appliance as soon as you are finished using it and allow the plug to cool before putting the extension cord away. Check your home wiring and fix any shorts as soon as possible.

Cook stoves and ovens, as well as other electric cooking appliances are causes of some home fires. Keep your stove tops and ovens clean and free of grease splatters to avoid catching the grease on fire. Check wiring and don’t use extension cords for these devices – the plugs of extension cords generate a lot of heat and if placed unfortunately, can cause a fire. Make sure your ovens and toasters are free of crumbs – the bread crumbs that collect in the bottom of a toaster can catch fire, not to mention provide food for roaches and mice (eeeew!).

Fireplaces are often cited as the culprit in home fires. The biggest problem is creosote build-up in the chimney, so have your fireplace professionally checked before you light it off the first time in the fall. If you are a heavy fireplace user, burn one of those CLR logs once a week; otherwise once a month is OK. Leave the damper open when there is a fire in the fireplace. Use a fire screen, especially if you are suing wood that sparks, like cedar (which smells wonderful but is a dangerous wood to burn) or knotty pine (again, it sells nice, but is prone to sparking). Even well dried and aged wood will spark when it has cracks or knots in it or was outside and collected water inside it – the heating of the water causes the wood to pop and send out a spark or three. Make sure that you have a large enough non-flammable area in front of the fireplace, and don’t place rugs or lie too close. Make sure the fire is completely out before leaving the house or going to bed. In the days when the fireplace was the only source of heat, fires were banked, and you can do that if you are experienced. Most Americans aren’t, so I recommend just putting it completely out first. Close the damper so if you leave an ember behind anyway, it won’t have enough oxygen to feed it up into a fire. Burn only as much wood as you need to. This isn’t the place for a bonfire.

Get a smoke alarm and or 2 or three and keep them supplied with fresh batteries. If anyone in the house is hearing impaired, get ones with flashing lights. I’d prefer to see one in each room.

If you can afford it, a residential fire sprinkler system is good, but if not, make sure you have at least one fire extinguisher.

Surviving the Fire

Before a fire, have an escape plan and a place to meet outside.

Put important documents and items into a fireproof safe. Maintain this safe and when you get new documents, put them in there as soon as possible.

Digitize your photos and store them online or away from the house.

Have at least 2 ways out of each room. Make sure security bars can be unlatched from inside, that screens can be removed easily, that windows open and close easily, and if the window is on the second floor, that you have a UL approved collapsible ladder – for each window. Put it next to the fire extinguisher.

Practice the escape plan each month. Everyone who visits or sleeps over needs to know these plans, too.

If a fire starts anyway in your home, remember what you were taught in school – stop, drop, and crawl. Smoke and heat rise, so the air and cooler part will be closer to the floor.

Never open a door that feels warm or hot to the touch. The places you need to check are the top of the door, the door handle, and the crack along the sides of the door. Even if the door feels cool, open it slowly and be prepared to shut it quickly. Then proceed to your alternate route.

Meet outside – it doesn’t have to be across the street. At the end of the driveway, under a tree, or someplace far enough away to be safe. Call the fire department. I like to put a charged cell phone at the meeting place in a waterproof container in case the neighbors are gone or won’t open their doors for us. Check this phone frequently and keep it charged.

Teach children and pets to come towards firefighters, not to hide from them. You can rent firefighter suits for training purposes, or take them to visit the firestation.

Once you are out of the house, do not go back in. Things can be replaced. If a person or pet is still inside, tell the firemen – they are trained to rescue and are wearing the equipment to keep themselves safe in a burning house. You aren’t.

After the Fire

The first things you need to do are:

1. Secure a temporary place to live. Make arrangements with family, friends, or neighbors for this. If you need to stay in a hotel, save the receipts.

2. Get clothing. Again, if you leave some clothes with family, friends, or neighbors, you’re ahead of the game here. Check out charity clothing places and thrift stores. Save receipts.

3. Replace your medicine prescriptions and if necessary, your eyeglasses.

4. Purchase toiletries. Save receipts.

Do not enter the site for at least 24 hours, as the fire can rekindle. Wait until the fire department gives you clearance.

When you are cleared to go back in, be very careful. The fire and water damage may have weakened floors and ceilings.

The fire department will make sure all utilities are turned off. Do not turn them back on yourself. Have the utility companies come out and make sure they are safe to use again and turn on for you.

Food, beverages, and medications need to be discarded. What isn’t burned will be damaged by the heat and water.

Contact the police department to let them know the building is not abandoned, but neither is it occupied. You may need to board up broken windows until they are replaced.

If you can, locate your important papers (in that fireproof safe, eh?), eyeglasses, prosthetics if you have them, and valuables like jewelry, electronics, cash, computer equipment and electronics.

You will need to notify the following people about the fire and your temporary change of address:

1. Insurance agent/company

2. Mortgage company/landlord

3. Family and friends

4. Employer and co-workers who need to know

5. Your child(ren)’s school(s)

6. Your Post Office (they can hold for pick-up, you can rent a PO Box, or they can deliver it to another address for a while)

7. Other delivered items – newspapers, usually, but if you have other regular deliveries, they, too, need to know

8. Your fire and police departments so they can contact you to give or get more information

9. Your utility companies

The last thing you need to do is check with the IRS for special benefits you may receive for your loss.

Save receipts for everything related to recovering from the fire.

Replace documents as soon as possible.

Start rebuilding.


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