Fire eats and breathes, but it isn’t truly alive — and if you take away its fuel or oxygen, it will die. Fire also indiscriminately consumes everything in its path when it is set loose, including homes, businesses, animals and people.
Thankfully, you can take steps to protect your home from fire, whether the blaze begins within or without. Here is our ultimate guide for safeguarding yourself, your family and your home from the flames.
Preventing Fires in The Home
Home structure fires that aren’t related to wildfires still put you and your family at risk. One study found that between 2013 and 2017, home structure fires caused 79% of fire-related deaths. Thankfully, you can create a plan to prevent fires in your home and give yourself the chance to escape if one does ignite.
Inspect all of your heating sources before use. These include space heaters, water heaters, stoves, ovens and furnaces. Anything that generates heat could potentially fail and start a fire if not properly inspected and maintained. The same thing goes for cords and any device that uses electricity. Ensure that everything is functioning properly and that all wires are insulated to prevent electrical shocks and fire hazards.
Check and clean your dryer at least once a year. Nearly 3,000 reported fires every year can be traced to a clothes dryer and ignited dryer lint.
When you’re cooking, don’t leave the kitchen. It takes almost no time for a fire to start when you’ve got food on the stove or in the oven. If you’re not actively monitoring the situation, a fire can spread before you can manage it. You can easily handle something like a flaming pan on the stovetop in a few seconds by using a lid. However, if you let it get out of control, it could easily burn down your entire house.
[Editor’s note: This is something I continue to explain to my teenagers when they inevitably leave for a few minutes waiting on something to boil or cook because they’re bored or whatever. Bad things happen fast!]
Finally, ensure that your smoke detectors are working. Change their batteries once a year or sooner if necessary. Or just purchase a few quality lifetime smoke detectors and be done with it. Test all smoke detectors once a month. On average, 1,450 fire-related deaths happen each year in homes without functioning smoke detectors.
Many parts of the country have seen homes, businesses and lives destroyed by devastating wildfires in recent years. The 2018 Camp Fire that tore through Northern California claimed 85 lives and wiped out millions of dollars worth of homes and companies. Faulty electrical transmission lines caused this fire — one of the many possible explanations for human-caused blazes.
Humans start as many as 85% of wildfires in the United States. Neglected campfires, unattended burning yard waste, malfunctioning electrical equipment and discarded cigarettes can turn into a blaze that destroys lives and burns homes to the ground.
The best way to protect your home from wildfires is to prevent them in the first place. Pay close attention to burn bans in your area. Only burn yard waste and other materials in contained locations and monitor the fire at all times. The same thing goes for campfires, barbeques and any other source of flame you might use.
While smoking is a terrible habit, it doesn’t have to start wildfires. Dispose of your cigarettes and matches in a closed container rather than tossing them on the ground. They might be biodegradable, but the toxins in cigarettes can leach into the environment and cause ecological harm.
As Smokey the Bear says — “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.” If we start making small changes, we could reduce the number of fires in the U.S. and around the world, protecting homes and businesses in the process.
Protecting Your Home From Wildfires
If a wildfire is heading your way, you may have no recourse but to evacuate, but you can still protect your property even if you’re away. These two major steps are not foolproof because fire often has a mind of its own, but they can increase the chances that your home will survive if a blaze heads your way:
- Create a firebreak around your property. The goal here is to remove anything the fire could use to reach your house. These objects include trees, grass, underbrush and any organic material that could provide a pathway for the blaze to access your property. Ideally, the firebreak should extend 30 feet in every direction around your home if you live in a flat area. If the land around your home slopes, you may need to extend the firebreak to 100 feet in every direction to achieve the ideal window of protection.
- Maintain an efficient irrigation system around your property so the area doesn’t get too dry. Dehydrated land is especially prevalent during drought conditions, and it often contributes to wildfires. Doing this might be tricky if there are watering restrictions in your area, so make sure you’re staying within local regulations.
- Review the wildfire prevention documents here, especially the Avoiding Wildfire Damage: A Checklist for Homeowners PDF.
Have an Escape Plan
You can take every precaution in the world, but sometimes there is nothing you can do to prevent your house from catching on fire. Lightning strikes, power surges and other acts of God can circumvent even the most detailed protections and leave you wondering what to do. For cases like these, the best thing you can do is to have an escape plan.
With wildfires, evacuation is often the only choice. Have a complete bug out bag ready with everything you might need — from food, water and medical supplies to important papers like car titles and home deeds. This way, you can throw your bag in the car–or just keep it in your vehicle already–and get out of the way of the flames without scrambling for your belongings. If you’re told to evacuate, don’t wait! Some wildfires move very fast and are often unpredictable, so you could find yourself trapped before you even realize what’s happening.
Discuss your escape plan with everyone in your household and make sure every individual understands their responsibilities. For children, that responsibility might just be getting in the car and not fighting with mom and dad. In any case, it’s a good idea to include them in these discussions and remember pet needs during evacuation too.
What to Do If Your House Catches Fire
If you’re home when your house catches fire, the first thing you need to do is to get everyone out of the building. In single-family homes, this means evacuating your family members and, if it is safe to do so, your pets. In an apartment complex or condo, make sure you pull the fire alarm (if there is one) to alert the rest of the building that there is a fire. That will let them know they need to evacuate as well.
If your doors are closed, press a hand to the door before you open it. Even wooden doors get unbearably warm if there is a fire on the other side, and opening a door could allow the flames to spread faster than you can escape. Stay low to the ground and cover your nose and mouth with a wet cloth to reduce smoke inhalation, if possible, then proceed to the nearest exit as quickly and safely as possible.
Before a fire occurs, practice fire drills with your family regularly, especially if you have young children who might panic if a blaze arises. Make sure they know exactly what to do if they hear the smoke detector beeping. Pick a place outside to meet up, far enough away from the house that you can gather safely without worrying about additional injury, such as a neighbor’s house or simply across the street.
[Editor’s note: You might also want to find out if your children will even wake up when a smoke alarm goes off. I know one of my children–whom will remain nameless–didn’t even budge when he was younger and the smoke alarm went off erroneously for minutes on end.]
Once you’re out of the home and your entire family has gathered at your meeting place, don’t go back into the building. Even if it looks safe enough to run inside to save your laptop or your pet goldfish, you could find yourself trapped and in need of rescue or worse, dead. Material objects are replaceable. You are not. Never go back inside once you’re out.
When you’re sure that everyone is safely out of the home, call the fire department if bystanders haven’t already done so.
What to Expect When You Call the Fire Department
The type of firetruck that arrives on the scene will depend on numerous variables. These circumstances can be anything from your location to the available fire hydrants to the size of your home. Even the distance between neighboring houses matters. If you live in an area that doesn’t have a nearby hydrant, the firefighters will likely bring a tanker truck to supply the water they need to extinguish the fire.
Once on the scene, the fire crews will assess the blaze and determine the best way to put out the flames. If anyone is still in the home, the team will put on oxygen tanks and enter the house if it is safe to do so. They will then attempt to extricate anyone left inside.
If you and your family were in the home when the fire broke out, emergency medical services (EMS) will accompany the fire crews. You’ll be assessed by the EMS, given oxygen in case of smoke inhalation and, if necessary, transported to the emergency room for additional treatment.
The Aftermath and Recovery
After the fire is extinguished you’ll need to find somewhere to stay. Also, you’ll want to contact your homeowners insurance company ASAP. If you’re renting, you should contact your landlord alongside your rental insurance company. In either case, your insurance company will walk you through the process of filing a claim for reimbursement.
Even though the fire is out, it still likely won’t be safe to return to the property. If you want to try to recover anything that might be left in the wake of the blaze, check with the fire department or local building officials before you return. Fires, even when seemingly extinguished, can erupt again without warning when things are disturbed. Additionally, the fire itself may have rendered the home structurally unsafe to enter.
Eventually you’ll need to work with your insurance company to rebuild or relocate, depending on what you and your family decide to do. You’ll likely stay in temporary lodging, such as with friends or at a hotel, until you find a more permanent place. Disaster relief agencies can provide free shelter if those two options aren’t available. Remember to cancel or suspend recurring bills like cable and internet until you can find a permanent space.
Be Prepared for Anything and Everything
They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that goes double for fire prevention in the home. We can’t always avoid things like wildfires and acts of God, but we can take every step necessary to reduce the chances of a home fire. Some of these actions are simple, like cleaning out your dryer and checking the batteries in your smoke detectors. They only take a few minutes of your time but could save your life and prevent an appliance fire.
As with any disaster, the best thing you can do is prepare for anything and everything. It’s impossible to know what might happen, even if you take all the practical steps to prevent a fire from tearing through your house. Being prepared for every possible event means that no matter what happens, nothing will surprise you. A little bit of future-mindedness might be all you need to keep your family safe if the worst happens.
[Note: This was a guest post.]