House fires are what I call the ‘everyday disaster.’ According to SGI Canada: “There are about 24,000 house fires each year in Canada, resulting in an average of 377 deaths and 3,048 injuries.” That’s more than 65 fires a day.
If you’ve ever been to one of our workshops then you have probably heard me talk about my friend Neil. Neil grew up in California, which as we all know is a very flammable state. His family experienced a house fire in the middle of the night that flattened their home. Luckily no one was hurt, but they were suddenly left with nothing but the PJs they were wearing.
The first time he shared this story with me, I asked him if he could have brought one thing with him from the house, what would it have been. The answer surprised me. It wasn’t family photos, or the creative project he’d been working on for years, it was “cash, or maybe my I.D.” The family was insured, but to claim insurance one must be able to prove who they are. To rent housing, to drive, to renew bank cards, to cash a paycheque, you need identification for all of them. This is difficult if all your documentation has just gone up in flames!
So, today we’re going to be inspired by Neil’s story and learn all about house fires. We’ll discuss what we can all do before a fire to make sure one never happens, how to best survive one you’re caught in, and best practices for recovering.
I know, I know, no one likes smoke alarms. They don’t seem to know the difference between burnt toast and a genuine threat, but having a working fire alarm installed increases your odds of surviving a house fire by 2-3 times. Check on your alarm each year, ideally when your updating your emergency kit, and ensure the batteries are still working. If you take the batteries out while you cook, be sure to pop them in again once the meal is ready and keep a close eye on the stove in the meantime.
It’s incredible how many people think that a fire extinguisher is the answer to any house fire. Just point and shoot and poof! No more fire… right? Nope! There’s actually way more to these lifesaving tools than most folk realize.
For starters, there are 5 different classes of extinguisher. Only 3 of them are very relevant for home use:
- Class A – designed to put out normal combustibles like paper, wood, or cloth.
- Class B – best for fires involving flammable liquids like grease, gas, and oil-based paints.
- Class C – perfect for fires involving electronics, appliances, and power tools. Anything that’s electrically energized and/or plugged in.
Different types of extinguishers use different extinguishing agents. Using the wrong kind can be ineffective for safely putting out a fire. Different types of extinguishers will have symbols to represent what they put out, so be sure to learn the symbols before you need them.
The other thing many people get wrong is when an extinguisher can be used. They picture themselves wading into a blaze, foam spraying in a protective and instantly effective cone as they search for their pet or car keys. As you have guessed, this is not how it works.
If the fire is still confined to one object (a pan or a wastebasket for example) then a fire extinguisher will probably be adequate. If it has grown any larger then that, or if your instincts tell you to get out, follow these steps:
- Alert others to the fire
- Evacuate the building
- Go to your pre-planned meeting place
- Call the fire department (use a neighbour’s phone if necessary)
Always have at least two ways out of any room. Don’t paint or nail windows shut, and don’t block doors or windows with furniture. If you cover your windows in insulating plastic for the winter, ensure that every member of your family knows how to remove it to make a speedy exit. Beware of seasonal blockades like Christmas trees – even though they’re festive they’re not worth blocking an exit.
Safe Use of Fire in the Home
If you like a candle lit dinner, bath, or power outage, use a fireplace, or fancy yourself the next ‘top chef’ there are things you can do to mitigate the risks your flames cause. These tips are also relevant for electric space heaters and baseboard heaters.
- Store fire-making tools away from children
- Ensure any kids understand the dangers of playing with fire
- Keep anything hot on heat-resistant surfaces
- Ensure that anything with a lit flame is sturdy and not in danger of tipping
- Don’t put open flames or hot appliances near curtains or other hanging fabrics (I’m including hair in this. The smell alone is worth avoiding it.)
- Keep at least 1 meter of space between an open flame and anything above it (ie shelving)
- If you have pets, beware of wagging tails near flames.
- Never leave hot appliances/open flames unattended
- While cooking, keep pot handles turned toward the rear of the stove. This way it’s more difficult to accidently knock them, or for children to grab and tip the contents.
- Keep your stove and oven clean to avoid grease build up
- Don’t pour water on a grease fire. Smother it with a lid or larger pot.
Basically, have a healthy respect for fire and flammable objects.
Make a Fire Escape Plan and PRACTICE!
Every moment counts in a fire, so it’s important to have a plan in place and to know it like the back of your hand. Practice your plan with your household at least once a year, preferably twice a year if you can wrangle everyone.
Ensure that there are two exits from every room, and that everyone knows them both and are able to access them (small kids might have trouble reaching a higher window, larger persons may have difficulty with a smaller one.) Make sure that all windows can open easily, and screens are not difficult to remove. If you use security bars, test those for ease of opening too.
Teach children not to hide from fire fighters, and to make themselves visible if they are stuck in a room. To make it fun, practice escaping from the house with your eyes closed to simulate dark smoke. Practice acting out the tips in the following ‘during a fire’ section too.
During a Fire
Smoke kills more people than flames do. It’s blinding, toxic, and insulates the heat bringing room temperatures even higher. Asphyxiation (suffocating) is the #1 cause of death in house fires, three times more common than dying from burns.
There is, however, a literal ‘up-side’ to smoke. It rises, leaving cleaner, cooler air beneath. If you find yourself navigating a smoky building, crawl as low as you can to get under the smoke. Breathe through a wet cloth if possible. It will help filter the air.
When escaping a flaming building, test each new door knob using the back of your hand. It is more sensitive than your palm and the knob of the door will conduct heat from any fire from the other side. Don’t open the door if the knob is hot. Find another exit, or use fabric/tape to create a seal around the door, minimizing smoke into your room.
If you’re trapped, do your best to make yourself visible. Wave towels or other fabrics from the window to attract attention. If you are in a windowless room, resist the instinct to hide – firefighters need to be able to find you. If one is available, turn a radio or speaker on high to act as a beacon for rescuers. It will keep playing even if you lose your voice to smoke or fall unconscious.
If you can’t reach someone who is trapped, leave the building and call 911. Let the emergency operator know where the person is and never run back into the flames for anyone or anything. Firefighters do not need a second person to rescue. One is already too many.
When an escape route takes you past an emergency kit, use your best judgement on whether to pause and grab it. Only do so if it is designed for grab-and-go (a backpack or duffel) – don’t try to struggle with a giant tote or unwieldy suitcase when you could be running. Assuming your neighbours aren’t jerks, you probably won’t need the food, water, and survival supplies in your kit. But as Neil taught us at the beginning of this post, having copies of your important documents can be priceless. Plus, it never hurts to have a bonus pair of your own underwear handy.
An alternative to the emergency kit is keeping a fire-proof safe in the home with important copies. Just remember: the safe is fireproof, but the inside will still reach insanely high temperatures. USB sticks and other plastics may melt.
Catching on Fire
A rogue sleeve over a stove top, a loose lock of hair over a candle, or pushing your way through the wall of a blazing inferno (not recommended) may all leave you a little scorched. While some hobbyists or professionals may find themselves readily surrounded by enough water to put out any fire, the rest of us might not have the same resources.
Aquariums and water pails aside, the best thing you can do for someone (including yourself) that has caught fire is to smother the flames. Use a coat, towel, blanket, or fire-blanket to throw over the flames and apply pressure to snuff the fire out. If the fire is too big or awkward to put out, or if you are alone and on fire, stop, drop, and roll to put out the flames.
Lets say something has been damaged in a fire. Whether it’s an appliance or your entire home, there are some steps to recovering your normalcy as quickly and smoothly as possible.
Was the item/home insured? If so, catalogue the damages as soon as you can once it’s safe to re-enter the home. Take photos and make detailed notes as to what was damaged, it’s approximate value, and how bad the damage is. Take these to your insurance broker and they will be able to give further instructions. They will likely ask for receipts for each damaged item, along with the make, model, and date they were purchased. If the receipts were lost in the fire, request copies of your old bank statements to sleuth out the answers.
If the house is damaged, call your insurance company first-thing. Contractors and other businesses may begin soliciting you to put the damage right, and it can be overwhelming and confusing. Talk to your adjuster before committing to anything. They will likely have suggestions of reputable businesses in the area that are good at cleaning up soot and water damage.
Is the home unsafe to return to? Then you’ll need to find alternate shelter. Hopefully you have a support network of friends and family that can help you here, but if not, you may find yourself living out of a hotel for a while. Many home insurance policies cover loss-of-use, so some or all of this expense may be covered.
Talk to People
A house fire is a traumatic event. Even smaller ones can put us on edge and make us question our safety. Talk to people you trust or professional therapists to air out these feelings. All trauma is serious and you are worthy of that self-care.
Fire safety goes well beyond stop, drop, and roll. Making plans, installing safety equipment, and keeping important documents backed up are all steps you can take before the first spark to minimize the damage of a fire.
There is approximately a 1 in 500 chance that a Canadian household will experience a fire in any given year. Let’s work together to make sure it’s not our homes. Stay safe and don’t play with fire!
Thank you for reading.
This article was written by Zenia Platten – Author of Tethered and Emergency Preparedness Professional.