Her name was Dawn. The fire that took her life started in the living room directly below her bedroom and spread quickly. It followed her father up the stairs as he tried to rescue her, setting his clothes on fire as he went. He grabbed the doorknob to Dawn’s room. It was red hot. There was no longer life on the other side of that door. It was 0045, New Year’s Day, 1976. Things like this are never forgotten. The wounds never heal. Dealing with the loss of a loved one this way is horrible in itself. Having it happen during a TEOTWAWKI situation may very well break you and your group. If these words save one person, I’ll put it down as an answered prayer, no matter what.
First, the disclaimer: I’m not a firefighter. I did, however, spend twenty-one years in the military; several of them were at sea. The ship was my retreat. I was taught that it was the only thing between me and death, and we were drilled in firefighting and fire prevention constantly. You need to think of your retreat in the same manner. Chances are, no one’s coming to your rescue. You need to educate yourself in fire prevention and, to some extent, firefighting, if you and your family are to get through a survival situation. For the record, Dawn was my first love.
Fire is one of the most powerful tools known to man but is also a double-edged sword, capable of working both for and against us. Prepping websites and written material cover the starting of fires in a TEOTWAWKI situation at length, but precious little is written about fighting them, or better yet, keeping them from getting out of hand in the first place. In a grid-down scenario, firefighting services most likely won’t be available. This will be further compounded by the fact that you’re using unconventional methods to light the house, heat, and cook. Do yourself and your group a favor; don’t stop here. Continue reading and learning. Make yourself the smartest person in the room concerning the use and control of fire.
Face it; we live in the age of electric light. Many of us also cook with electric stoves. We’re no longer intimate with the hazards of the open flame, especially within the confines of the home. Unfortunately though, in the long run, it is the least expensive way to light a room, and may be the only way to cook a meal. In a long outage, you’re most likely going to have to resort to “hazardous” lighting and cooking.
Lighting is one of the easier things to deal with in a power-down situation. It’s also one of the easiest ways to burn down the house. Nothing says “we’re prepared” like lighting a candle or lantern during a blackout. On the other side of the coin, nothing says “we’re screwed” quite like standing in front of your burning house! Use candle or oil lamps only if they’re properly made. Look to the past for example. Folks “back in the day” knew how to minimize the risks of lighting with open flames. Learn from them! Look for lamps and candle holders with wide bases and glass chimneys. The wide base will make a lamp harder to tip over. The chimney will keep the wind and flammables off the flame. Oil lamps range from fairly safe to downright dangerous. Many people have decorative glass kerosene lamps around the house. They’re usually tall, with the tank and burner elevated by the handle/base. They’re made that way to better broadcast the light, and to make them easier to move around. This design also makes them top-heavy and easy to tip. Less thoughtful designs have a small base footprint or are too tall, making them even easier to tip. Steer clear of these. Look for a wide, heavy base; the wider and heavier the better. Also, make sure the burner, which also supports the glass chimney, screws onto the tank and stays there. Many of these lamps are cheaply made; they’re more for looks than actual use. The burner and chimney will often fall off if the lamp is moved or tilted at all.
“Old fashioned” metal kerosene hurricane lamps sit low, with the tank on the bottom for stability. New ones tend to be junk. I bought a couple of these a while back. They leaked wherever anything was welded to the tank. They were so dangerous that I wouldn’t even give them away! Look instead for older ones at yard sales and swap meets; preferably ones made in the USA. Aside from my bleeding red, white, and blue, I recommend these because they’re really well made. If you can find the kind once used on the railroads at a good price, grab them! Aside from being sturdy and really stable, they’re collectors’ items and are worth some money!
Propane or liquid-fueled pressurized lanterns throw a ton of light. They also throw a ton of heat! They can actually double as small area space heaters. At one point there was even a burner plate marketed that replaced the lantern’s top. The lantern could then be used as a small, really top-heavy stove! The fact that it’s unavailable now is testimony to just how bad an idea this was. Don’t use one of these. Any source of light which uses an open flame must be treated with respect. Don’t leave lamps unattended or where children can tamper with them. Don’t leave them anywhere near combustible materials like curtains and bedding. I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but fires caused by misplaced lamps and lanterns happen all the time.
Heating with an open flame gives fire yet another opportunity to ruin your day. Again, the prime culprit here is the proximity of the heat source to combustibles. If you’re heating with something like a kerosene heater, keep it away from the walls and away from the furniture. If using this type of heater, also be mindful of Carbon Monoxide buildup. You need to provide ventilation for the thing. If using a woodstove or fireplace to heat, keep anything that can burn away from them. A single ember rolling out of either one is all it takes. When cleaning either of these out, NEVER assume that there are no hot embers. The ash needs to be placed in a metal container, removed from the house, and stored away from the house.
Does your house have an electric stove? If so, unplug it or kill its circuit breaker when the power goes out. Horizontal surfaces like these inevitably tend to be repurposed as countertop space. If the power comes back on and one of the burners was inadvertently left on, anything left on the stove will be burning in minutes.
Speaking of cooking; if you find yourself having to cook on a campstove or other “alternative” means, do it outside, away from the house if possible. Again, look to the past. In the days of yore, the kitchen was always a separate structure built some distance from the house. The old-timers knew that it was a matter of time before a fire would start there. Isolating this fire source from the rest of the house was simply smart prepping. Do the same. And please, do not bring a gas grill into the house or garage for cooking, heating, or whatever. Aside from the obvious fire danger, running one of these in the house will fill the place up with carbon monoxide in no time!
Liquid fuel must not be stored inside the house, or anywhere near your stores. Place containers of fuel on the ground, in a really well ventilated space. Outdoor storage is ideal, but not always practical. The shed I store my fuel cans in has a very large vent louver at floor level, to allow any heavier-than-air vapors to immediately exit the structure. You don’t want to accumulate at all.
Okay, you did everything you could think of to prevent fire. Unfortunately, nature always sides with the hidden flaw. You need to be prepared, should a fire end up sprouting where it’s not supposed to be. Plan for the “what if”. If your retreat is not self-contained, plan on running water not being available. Purchase several fire extinguishers. Keep them in the areas most likely to entertain a rogue flame. Know how to use them. Know when to use them. A grease fire in a pot in the kitchen may be easily snuffed by putting a lid on the pot. Hitting the fire with a dry chemical extinguisher will do the same, but will also make a BIG mess. It’ll also use up one of your valuable extinguishers.
Four things are needed for fire– fuel, heat, oxygen, and a sustained chemical reaction (sometimes referred to as “free radicals”). Remove any one of these elements, and the fire goes out. It’s that simple (on paper). All fire extinguishers are designed to remove one or more of those elements. Readily available extinguishers are rated A, B, and C; A is for solids (trash, wood, paper); B is for flammable liquids; and C is for electrical fires. Most of the “A-B” extinguishers you’ll see offered at the home improvement and department stores are the “dry chemical” type. Squeezing the trigger on one of these releases a powder agent to snuff the fire. As I said before, it also makes a heck of a mess. If you discharge one of these on electronic equipment, consider the equipment ruined. Engines don’t like inhaling this stuff either. Aside from checking the gauge or “pop-up” pressure indicator, dry chemical extinguishers should be inverted every so often and tapped lightly with a rubber mallet. This keeps the powder inside from packing down and rendering the extinguisher useless. The most common class C extinguisher you’ll see is the CO2. This type starves the fire of oxygen. It’ll also starve YOU of oxygen, so use it with care. It produces water droplets and fog when used. It’ll also cause frostbite if discharged onto skin. To check one of these, either read a gauge on the unit, or weigh the extinguisher on a scale. Before using an extinguisher on an electrical fire, shut off power to whatever initiated the blaze, if possible. At this point, the fire goes from being a class C fire to either a class A or B. Chances are, shutting off the power will either bring the fire under control or put it out altogether!
There’s another type of extinguisher out there that’ll work on B and C fires, and can even give you the upper hand on some class A fires as well– halon. Halon gas actually interferes with fire’s chemical reaction. You can spray halon on electronics, engines, and the like with no ill effect, as the discharge doesn’t produce frost, static, or residue. The only damage you’ll have to deal with is that caused by the fire itself. The downside is that halon extinguishers are really expensive. They used to be quite common and cheap before the EPA clamped down on them for punching holes in the ozone layer. They ended up in a lot of cars, garages, and kitchens. As a result, you may find perfectly good units at yard sales. If you find one, and the gauge is in the green, BUY IT! Smaller halon units may not have gauges. If you find one of these and it feels about half-full, it’s most likely good to go.
If the fire you just knocked down involves any kind of bedding or furniture, get it out of the house immediately. Fires in things like this can smolder and reflash hours later. If the fire was that grease in the pan on the stove and you dropped a lid on it to snuff it, leave it alone until it cools. DON’T take the cover off right after you put the fire out! Remember; you snuffed the fire by dropping a lid on the pot, which starved the fire of oxygen. The heat and the fuel are still there, just waiting for the oxygen! Removing that lid will most likely result in a reflash, with your face and body just inches away from it! In the event of ANY fire, post a reflash watch until the fire scene is completely cooled.
Fire is one of those “fight or flight” things, and can go from one to the other in a heartbeat. If you’re fighting a fire, the only people in the space should be those doing just that, or, if necessary, removing stores from the structure. Everyone else should be outside at a predetermined meeting place. Pre-assign someone to do a head count, so that no one is mistakenly left inside if you need to fall back. Know when to run. Fires can get ahead of you really quickly, possibly barring your escape. This is a big deal, I know. You’re losing your shelter. You’re losing a good portion of your prep. If you wait too long though, you’ll lose your life. This is as good a place as any to plug the practice of dividing up your stores between several locations. It just plain makes sense not to put all of your eggs in one basket.
Have an escape plan, should a fire catch you by surprise, such as at night. As with every prep, have a plan A, B, and possibly C for escape, in case the primary exit route is impassible. Be sure everyone practices using the escape routes. Having a rope ladder fire escape in your kid’s 2nd floor bedroom is a good idea. Some people are afraid of heights though. Better to find this kind of thing out during a practice drill, than during a real event. Everyone should know what to do and where to go. Again, have a specified meeting place outside the house. While on the subject of “surprise” fires; buy GOOD smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors, along with enough batteries to keep them running for a several years. These are proven lifesavers and are very affordable. They may even give you enough of a jump on a fire to save the house. There is NO excuse for not having a few of these installed in your house.
The uncertain times ahead will have their share of trials. My hope and prayer for you is that uncontrolled fire will never be one of them. May God and His wisdom be with you if it is.