One of the greatest discoveries humankind ever made is fire. Through the many years, mankind has learned a great many things about this process and its benefits. Without a doubt, fire is one of man’s greatest tools. However, like most tools, when used improperly or by the untrained, it can become one of the most destructive forces imaginable. The same tool that can provide life-saving heat in the middle of a brutal winter storm can also reduce an entire forest to smoldering ash. (At this time we’ll leave out any discussion as to the State of California’s terrible forestry management practices.)
As preppers, we must be ready and able to safely and responsibly use fire to help ensure our continued survival. To do this, we need to be aware of how fire functions, how it can get out of control, and what we can do to restrain its spread until it can be controlled. A great deal of the following information will be summarized from my training as a volunteer firefighter and a transportation company safety officer.
To start, please understand that fighting a fire of any size is an extremely dangerous activity even with the proper training, equipment, and manpower. Attempting to combat anything larger than the smallest of fires without proper training and equipment is almost certainly a futile effort and is highly likely to result in injury and/or death to the person(s) attempting to do so. Proper firefighting equipment is highly expensive to purchase and maintain. An adequate house fire fighting operation requires access to hundreds of gallons of water per minute and multiple hose lines, each requiring potentially several 100 feet of hose. This level of equipment and manpower is realistically beyond what most private citizens could obtain and staff.
For the prepared citizen, the best course of action is to take as many steps to prevent a fire from occurring as possible. The next best option is to as quickly as possible determine the extent of the fire, to evacuate everyone from the structure, and to contact 911 for help.
To prevent fire from occurring, we must first understand that fire at its’ basic level is a chemical reaction that combines a fuel source, oxygen, and heat to produce fire. Additional byproducts (aka ash, smoke, etc.) will be produced depending on what the fuel source is and how complete the chemical reaction is. Most of us remember seeing the “Fire Triangle” in some safety class along the years. As long as these three elements are not present, fire will not occur.
Let’s Start With Flash Points
It is an important detail to know that fire will not burn solid or liquid fuels, it burns the gas that is emitted from these fuels. All fuels have a “flash point”, which is the lowest ambient temperature that a given fuel will emit enough gas for fire to occur. This temperature can vary wildly even among fuels that we would think are similar. For example, both gasoline and diesel are petroleum-based liquid fuels used in power internal combustion engines. But gasoline will give off fumes all the way down to negative 40-50*F, while diesel fuel has to be heated up to around 125*F. A good illustration of one of the reasons diesel engines and cold weather are a frustrating combination.
An additional important detail to know is the term “Vapor Density.” In simple terms, normal air has a vapor density of 1.0. Fumes and gases that are lighter than air and will rise to the highest point have a vapor density less than 1.0. Fumes and gases that are heavier than air and sink towards the lowest point have a vapor density greater than 1.0. This will inform you as to whether the fuel for a potential fire will be up along the ceiling or down by your feet. For example, many cooking and heating appliances use either propane or natural gas as a fuel. Note that natural gas is lighter than air and will rise. But propane is heavier and will sink. This can be an important detail to know if you should have a gas line leak in your home or if a pilot light should go out.
Fire Prevention Steps
There are multiple steps that can be taken to prevent fires in the home. I will briefly outline a few general steps that can be taken in the typical home but please do not take this to be an all-inclusive list. For additional information and suggestions, please contact your local fire departments. If requested, most departments will conduct a walk-through of a residence or business to identify hazards as a training session for their members.
– Store garage supplies such as spray paint, starting fluid, gasoline, etc. invented, steel fireproof cabinets, not on a shelf beside an electrical outlet.
– Store reloading supplies separate from each other and in steel fireproof cabinets that are hinged to “blow out” if powder or primers start to burn or cook-off.
– Store used rags in a fireproof wastebasket.
– Research the products you are using and storing. Some commonly used products, even natural ones like linseed oil, can generate enough heat as they dry or degrade to ignite without an outside heat source. Others, such as brake fluid and swimming pool chlorine, can react violently if accidentally combined.
– Keep the kitchen cooking area clear; dishrags, cooking oils & greases, and cookbooks should be out of arms reach of the stove. Always remove used pots and pans from the hot cooking surface.
– Upgrade the home’s outlets to GFI outlets and do not overload outlets by using strip outlets, power strips, etc. Also, use outlet inserts to keep toddlers and small children from accidentally sticking objects into outlets.
– Keep furniture and decorates away from heat sources and outlets. Curtains, drapes, and lamps are a good example. Modern furniture is manufactured almost entirely of plywood and/or petroleum-derived materials which will burn quickly once ignited.
– Avoid using open flames such as candles and fireplaces without containment. Add a door or screen to the fireplace, and place candles inside lanterns.
– Periodically inspect the power cords on electrical appliances that are moved a lot such as hair dryers, curling irons, George Foreman grills, drills, hand sanders, etc. for visible damage. Run your hand along the cord after use to feel for hot spots which could result from internal damage. Also check the power cords that could be reached and chewed on by pets.
– Keep the outside of your property free of possible fuel sources such as leaves, downed trees, and branches. Don’t forget to keep the gutters and roof clear of debris as well.
– If you have a chimney, have it swept and inspected regularly. Older masonry and clay-lined chimneys can develop cracks and breaks that can allow smoke, soot, and heat to escape out and into the home. Consider upgrading the lining to double- or triple-walled stainless chimney pipe.
– Situate home heating fuel tanks as far from the home as possible.
– Invest in a well-made fire-resistant safe to store important documents and personal items such as heirlooms, pictures, etc. Please note that all fire-resistant safes will only protect the contents for a limited amount of time, depending on the temperature that they are exposed to. Consider locating the safe close to a door so the fire department can easily enter the house and keep the safe cool by applying water.
– Don’t keep all of your critical supplies in one place. Have copies of important documents in multiple locations. Have some of your preps in your home, in a detached garage or storage building, and/or at an off-site storage unit. At times, no matter how many precautions are taken, fire will occur and will have to be dealt with. There are many steps that can be taken to limit the fire’s rate of spread and to limit the damage before the fire department arrives.
– Have working fire alarms throughout the house, especially in areas where a fire is most likely such as a kitchen, a garage, or a home workshop. Function test them twice a year, an easy way to remember is when the time changes. Also, change the batteries regularly.
– Have multiple fire extinguishers in key locations such as the kitchen, garage, laundry room, and/or bedrooms. Fire extinguishers for homes will usually either be Type A, B, C, or some combination of these. Most hardware and big box stores will have Type ABC units in stock, which will be appropriate to use on most home fires. An easy way to know what type of extinguisher is needed is to remember that Type A fires leave Ash (wood, paper, etc.), Type B fires Boil (liquids, oils, grease), and Type C fires have current (electrical). Recently, Type K units have started being made. Type K is specifically built to be used on cooking fires resulting from hot grease or cooking oils.
– Many companies produce fire-resistant decorative ceiling panels. These panels are intended to prevent the fire from burning vertically thru the ceiling and into the above floor or attic. If this occurs, the fire will then spreading laterally along the roof trusses or floor joists.
– For multi-level homes, have rope escape ladders in the upper floors to allow escape in the event that the stairs are not usable.
– Again, for multi-level homes, make sure everyone in the home knows how to open the windows. Should the home have windows that don’t open, consider purchasing spring-loaded glass breaks and storing them with the escape ladders.
– Keep interior doors closed. Modern homes are very airtight and modern furniture will burn quickly. This causes the fire to quickly use up the available oxygen in the room and will become oxygen-limited, slowing the growth and progress. Do not open the door going into a fire-involved room! This will allow the fire access to fresh oxygen and to potentially backdraft towards you.
– Make sure your house number is correct, large, and easily visible, especially at night. The local fire department cannot get to you effectively if the road and house number signs are overgrown with vines or not correct.
Finally, I would encourage everyone to consider joining their local volunteer fire department. Doing so is an excellent way to meet like-minded people in your community and to join a long tradition of service to others; to network with local law enforcement, EMS, and other first responders; and to gain access to top-notch training at little to no cost. If you are new to an area, this can be a great way to become part of the community.