Protecting Your Home From Fire

While a fireplace or woodstove can be peaceful, an out of control fire in the home is one of the most frightening things anyone can imagine.  I had a candle set the wall screen on fire in my bedroom 35 years ago, and almost got burnt up. That left me with a lifelong concern and vigilance about the risk of fire.  With the arrival of spring, I thought I’d you some constructive advice on how to protect yourself and your home from fire.

You do not want this to be you
Most articles about fire protection focus on keeping hazards out of the home – don’t smoke in bed, don’t smoke when you are drunk, make sure candles are in safe enclosures, etc.  That’s all good advice and I won’t repeat it further here.  Instead I’m going to focus on what happens when a fire has started, for whatever the reason.

Your first concern is obviously getting your family and pets to a safe location. Your next concern is protecting your property, while also staying safe yourself.  That presents a catch-22.  For you to be completely safe you need to be 100 feet back from the house, from which remove all you can do is watch your home burn as you wait for the fire trucks.

Professional fire fighters say you should get out, stay out, and let the professionals do their job.  That's surely the best way to save lives.  But for many of us, the property that is at risk in a fire is valuable.  And if the fire department is far away, we must either act to protect our interests, or watch what we have burn.  

If you go in and fight the fire, you place yourself at risk, but if you do it quickly, and do it smartly, your risk is minimized and your chances of extinguishing the fire are actually far greater than the odds of the fire department doing it for you.  When I say that I’m not disrespecting the fire department, I am just pointing out that fires grow exponentially in their first minutes and a kitchen fire may 100 times more difficult to put out five minutes after it started.  After 15 minutes it probably will not be extinguishable without the total loss of the home. 

Yet that is the best response time we can home for from our public servants.  They have to answer the call, load and start the truck, and then drive several miles to reach you.  Once there, the hoses have to be unloaded and deployed, and hydrant hookups made.  Even the fastest firemen need time to do those things.  In most cities the fire department will not be spraying water on your house for at least 10 minutes after your phone call.  In the country, that number may triple.  If you care about protecting your property, even five minutes is probably too long.  You need to act seconds after discovery, and act decisively.

You must also act fast because a fire in the house will fill it with smoke, and you can become incapacitated or disoriented.  If the house is already full of smoke, all you can do is get out.  Most people who die in fires are killed by smoke and gases.  If the house fills up, get out.

How do you fight fire and win?  You use a combination of early detection then tools, extinguishers, and water.  Sounds simple, but the sad truth is that most home owners have near-zero ability to suppress a fire in the home, and many can’t even detect fire until far too late. You must also act fast because a fire in the house will fill it with smoke, and you can become incapacitated or disoriented.  

Small extinguishers like this can be kept in key spots round the house.  
The biggest risk in most homes is kitchen fires.  In our house, we keep small kitchen extinguishers (see photo) on both sides of the stove.  If you get a flash fire, those extinguishers and a lid for the burning pot will bring most fires under control very fast.  If that does not appear to be enough – for example, if burning oil were to spread onto the floor – I keep a 6 liter 20pound liquid filled restaurant extinguisher hanging 5 steps away in the garage entry.  An extinguisher of that size – meant for use in commercial kitchens with 80-200lb deep fat fryers - should suppress any normal residential kitchen fire if caught before the structure starts to burn.

A 6 liter liquid filled kitchen fire extinguisher

The key – and I cannot stress this enough – is acting fast.  If you are in the kitchen, and a fire starts, yell out the alarm and grab the extinguishers, aim and fire.  Do not hesitate, because once flames reach up into the ceiling or back into the walls your house may be doomed.

A wise person will have extinguishers close at hand in all places where they may be in time of need.  In our house that means we have them in the kitchen, the bedrooms, and the garage entryways.  We have flashlights in all those places too, in case we have to fight a fire when the power is out.

Headlamp, flashlight, work light.  Keep them close at hand, in bedroom, kitchen, garage
We keep small extinguishers in the house, and bigger units in the garage.  The logic is simple – the little units are inoffensive and easy to handle.    And you don’t need much in the fire’s first seconds.  If they are not enough, the big boys are just inside the garage.  Out there I keep several 20lb units with the knowledge that one may not be enough, and there will be no second chances if they are needed.

Which would you rather risk – $150 for extinguishers or $300,000 for a new home?

Extinguishers are rated by capacity and types of fires.  Kitchen units are Type K, and they are meant to suppress grease fires on hot commercial kitchen appliances.  Some would say that’s overkill in the home but in my opinion, when putting out fires, there is no such thing. 

General purpose extinguishers are usually filled with dry chemical, and rated for A, B, and C fire.  A type A fire is wood, paper, or trash.  Or the house itself.   Type A is best suppressed with water once it gets going.

Type B and C are flammable liquid fires and electrical fires, respectively.  A gasoline or grease fire is a type B fire.  A good 10lb dry chemical extinguisher is rated 4A, 60BC.  That means is can put out a trash fire of 4 square feet, or a 60 square foot pool of burning gasoline.  Most people are surprised to read that it’s harder to put out a trash fire than a gas fire, but it’s often true.

If you have a risk of liquid fires and high value property – like burning gasoline in a collector car – consider keeping a 20lb CO2extinguisher on hand.  Those units are effective against gas fires and they cool the surfaces to prevent re-flash.  Best of all, they leave no residue.  Every collector car garage should have at least one such unit.

If you are really serious about this, and you live in the country, you may also want to look at fire suppression grenades. These devices are thrown into a burning room, where they discharge a mist that cools the room and interrupts the chemical reactions necessary to sustain fire.  They can be astonishingly effective, as this video shows.  One big benefit of the grenade is that you can safely throw it into a smoke filled room that you could not otherwise enter, and there's good chance it will knock down or put out the fire all by itself. 

Do not look for extinguishers like these at chain stores or the mall.  Look at industrial supplies places like Grainger, or local fire equipment suppliers - businesses that serve gas stations and restaurants.  Get the real stuff because your life will depend on it, if it’s ever needed.  If there is doubt about size get the biggest thing you can easily maneuver. There is no such thing as a fire extinguisher that was too big, unless it’s so big you can’t get it where you need it.

The extinguishers I’ve described will suppress most fires in a house, until the structure starts burning.  An example would be if a candle tips over on a sofa, and you do not notice till the sofa is engulfed in flame.  At that point you have one chance – suppress with water spray, fast.  You can knock down a pretty big furniture fire fast hitting it with heavy water mist at the base.

With that in mind, I keep 200 feet of hose coiled on a big hook under the deck, connected and ready to turn on.  That is enough hose to reach our backyard fireplace (150 feet across the yard) and also to reach most anywhere within the house.   There is a backup hose with another 200 feet of hose on the side of the house.  Either one should be sufficient to put out a burning sofa and many other interior fires that have not yet grown out of control.  Fire departments use much larger hoses to suppress fires fast, but once again timing is of the essence.  A single hose will extinguish a blasé at its inception while two pump trucks and six men on hoses will struggle to contain it, once it gets going.

If you are building a home you can take other steps like raising the ceilings (ours are all 10-15 feet) and using fire resistant sheetrock.  You can also install sprinkler fire suppression.  None of those things are available at reasonable cost to people with existing homes.

What about the roof catching fire, as with lightning or a chimney fire?  I keep ladders under the deck, and they would be the only way to suppress a fire from a lightning strike at the outset.  Waiting 10 minutes for a fire truck in that circumstance generally means the loss of the house.

The next issue is detection, and that is vital. If you don't see a fire start, you have to rely on detectors.  We have a fairly large house, and I had all rooms and halls wired with central station smoke detectors.  Central station means the system calls a dispatch center as well as ringing a bell in the house.  I have monitors in the bedroom and at the entrances that will announce which zone is in alarm.  If you don’t have a system like this the next best thing is standalone smoke detectors, which need to be in all rooms to be useful.

The fire code does not call for detectors in every space, but that is obviously the one and only way to get fast warning.  Remember to put detectors around the furnace and in the attic.

The tips described above should be “good enough” to protect you if you are home and awake.  What if you are asleep?  First of all, sleep with the bedroom doors closed and be sure there are smoke detectors that work in the hall.  That way, you get an alarm while your bedroom is still full of clear air (unless the fire starts in your bedroom.)  Make sure there is a means of getting out of the house from each bedroom.  In our house we have large windows in 4 of the bedrooms and a door to the deck in the master.  So exit is easy and safe.  If your bedrooms are on an upper floor you should have some means of exiting that will really work. The fire safety ladders that many people buy don’t generally work.  Try climbing one some time and you will see why – unless the ladder had standoffs and weight at the bottom, you won’t be able to put your feet in.  In a panic, you will likely fall.  The solution is to get a high grade rope ladder, or a quickly deployable aluminum unit. You also need to be sure you can actually exit via the windows.

The next thing to consider is night, which is when many fires happen.  With that in mind, I strongly suggest you have portable lights in every bedroom.  I recommend Streamlight Stinger C4 rechargeable.  Many police departments use these.  They are very bright, water and shock proof, and when charged they will run for hours.   For most homeowners a good flashlight is a far smarter investment that a gun, and one that is sure to be useful.  I also have larger battery lights that I can use if the power fails (a time of heightened risk)

If you are going in to fight a fire a headlamp is a great thing to have too.  Petzl is a good brand with NAO being their most powerful unit as of this writing (May 2015) Black Diamond is another good brand, and Streamlight also makes commercial headlamps.

The second thought relates to clothing.  I’m going to assume you do not have specialist fireproof clothes quick at hand.  If you have to exit a burning home you are safer running out naked rather than running through flames in synthetic nightwear. The synthetics will stick to you if they burn, with really nasty result.  If you wear clothes, wear cotton, which you can wet for safety.  If you wear gloves, use leather, not synthetics for the same reason.  Wear leather boots, not synthetic too.

If you decide to follow those suggestions, do one more thing:  buy extinguishers for all your cars too.   Everything I suggested will cost under $1,000 which is a comparatively trivial cost for such protection.

All my life, I have looked to my own resources for defense and protection.  So far, it’s worked.  It can work for you too.  Fire departments are great for big fires, and slow moving fires.  But they are of little help if you want to avoid widespread ruin after a home fire starts.  Protect yourself effectively, and you won’t even need to call them.

Hunter Thompson said it well.  “There is one rule in this house.  Never, ever, call 911.”  Look after yourself.



A great read. I think extinguishers, both large and small, will be gifted to my sons this Christmas. Both have recently purchased their first homes and neither has extinguishers.

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