Double Disaster:  A Home Fire During a Broader Emergency Situation

homeonfireConsider these scenarios:  What if a fire develops and the phones are not working, so you are unable to summon the fire department?  Or, what if you telephone for help, only to discover that the fire department is too busy with other disaster-related emergencies and is unable to respond?  What if your fire is at a rural location, far from emergency services and they can’t get there in time? 

A fire in your home, storage building, shop, or business can be heartbreaking under normal circumstances, but what if fire strikes in the aftermath of a disaster when the world is topsy-turvy?    At times such as this, even a small fire can grow and become a life-threatening tragedy for you and your family.  Fortunately, you can minimize this risk by being proactive with fire prevention steps and assembling some basic firefighting supplies and skills.  If you are prepared, you may be able to solve the problem yourself.  This article will help you get started.

The first step is prevention.  Since there is an abundance of information on fire prevention, we will sidestep this issue except as it relates to preparing for a fire during a natural disaster, social unrest, or widespread emergency situation.  It’s a simple task to obtain general information on fire prevention from your local fire department or the Internet so we won’t address that important topic here.  Rather, here we will address those steps you can take to aggressively fight a fire yourself when help isn’t coming, or won’t come in time. 

The key to do-it-yourself firefighting is immediate action.  You can often put out a fire if you are prepared and you engage in effective action immediately.

The “Q” Steps for DIY Firefighting Success:

  • Quickly assess the situation
  • Quickly implement your plan of action
  • Quickly overwhelm the fire with decisive firefighting action. 


stopwatch-act-quicklyFirst-Steps in Any Fire Situation

1.     Quickly evaluate the situation and formulate your response. 

If there is a fire alarm, activate it, and then give warning to others who may be in the area.  Assign someone to call the fire department to inform them of the details of the fire (if it is possible to contact them), and then get others to help you with what is needed to fight the fire.  If you are the most knowledgeable on firefighting, take charge.  If someone else is better suited to the task, make it clear that they are in charge. 

Act quickly.  Seconds count.

If the fire is beyond the incipient stage (early, manageable size), get everyone to safety.  The safety of people is more important than saving a structure, so deal with this concern first.  Prioritize your response.  After people, what is most important to protect? 

2.      Quickly implement your plan of action.

Hopefully, you aren’t in this alone.  After you have sounded the alarm, recruit those who are capable of helping.  Give assignments; even older children can help.  Don’t assume that children will act prudently; make sure someone is keeping track of them. 

Remove flammable items from the fire zone:  If the fire has the potential to expand to other flammable materials, or jump to something that is highly flammable like cardboard boxes or gasoline stored nearby, remove these items—if you can do so quickly. 

If you can remove fuel from the fire, you can often keep the fire small and manageable, thereby buying yourself more time to fight it.  If others are available to help, send them to fetch the fire extinguishers while you remove the fuel and valuable items from the fire’s expansion path. 

If it is an electrical fire, turn off the power.  If it is a natural gas or propane fire, turn off the gas.

In advance, make sure everyone knows the location of the electrical box and gas shut-off valve, and how to turn them off.  If a key or tool is required, keep these close to where they will be needed.

3.     Quickly overwhelm the fire.  Don’t just fight it, overwhelm it. 

Hit the fire hard with everything you’ve got.  If you can knock it down quickly, you may be able to put out the fire yourself. 

If you are reluctant to use a fire extinguisher because you are untrained, or because you’re concerned that you might be overreacting, or you are hesitant because you know the fire extinguisher will create a mess, or you decide you’d rather wait until someone arrives to help, then you will likely lose the battle.  

Your window of opportunity to start fighting the fire is fleeting.  It may only last for a few seconds. 

Fire is your enemy, treat it as such.  Fight back with rapid, forceful, determined action.  Don’t delay.

Don’t fail to plan your attack, either.  The answer isn’t just rapid action.  You need to engage in effective and decisive rapid action.  Don’t be timid.  Don’t be hesitant.  Switch-on your mind and body; explode into action and overwhelm the fire. 

CAUTION:  Modern homes and vehicles are filled with products that produce noxious and poisonous smoke. Stay upwind from these fires, and do not enter a smoke-filled area except to save human life. Your possessions may be important to you but they are not worth sacrificing your health or life.  This risk is far different from the annoyance of campfire smoke. The smoke from plastics and other chemical-made substances is toxic and extremely dangerous. 

smokealarmsEarly Warning:  The Importance of Using Multiple Smoke Detectors and Alarms

To successfully fight a fire, you must have early warning of the problem.  Smoke detectors, carbon monoxide, and other electronic smoke, fire, heat, gas, and threat warning devices can provide you with this critical edge of early warning.

If you have a large house, or you need to protect garages or outbuildings, be sure to add detectors that send a signal to a central receiving station in your home.  This receiver needs to be in a high-traffic area of your house to make sure an alarm is noticed.  Without this feature, you may not hear the alarm emanating from an unoccupied area.

Even if your home, garage, shop, and storage buildings are already equipped with smoke alarms, it is often a good idea to add additional smoke detectors and fire sensors.  Local and national building codes now require smoke detectors, but many contractors only install the minimum number of detectors. 

In an emergency situation, these electronic devices are force multipliers.  They are not only needed, you need them in abundance.  Like burglar alarms, these tools can give you the crucial extra minutes needed for safety and advance warning.  With their help, you may be able to extinguish the fire before it grows into a blaze that is too big for you to fight.

Firefighting Equipment:  Fire Extinguishers

Amerex-Fire-Exinguishers-L-GOnce the fire extinguishers are at the location of the fire, before using, confirm that they are the correct type of extinguisher for the fire you will be fighting.  Using the wrong type of fire extinguisher can make matters worse, so check to be sure that you have the right type for the task.  This is critically important. 

For example, an extinguisher which contains water may spread a kitchen fire that is fueled by grease or cooking oil.  Similarly, you may receive a deadly electrical shock if you use a water or wet chemical extinguisher on a fire that started in a computer or electrical appliance.  The bottom line:  Know what you are buying and using.

Use the below chart to understand what types of extinguishers can be used safely and effectively, and what types of extinguishers are needed for the locations you are preparing to protect.  Know what you need before you shop.  Then purchase what you need, and place these items in higher-risk areas.

Know Your Fire Extinguisher ABCs

If you will be purchasing fire extinguishers, use the below list to help you select the best fire extinguisher for each area to be protected. 

Though the “Class” ratings are similar around the world, the below information relates specifically to the United States.  If you live in a different part of the world, the letter designations may be slightly different.   

116239-photo-page1Fire Extinguisher Types

Class A Ordinary combustible materials, such as wood, paper, cardboard, rubber, fabric, and some plastics (mainly, those which leave a residual ash after burning).

Class B Flammable and combustible liquids such as gasoline, diesel, alcohol, automotive oils, oil-based paints, and lacquers.

Warning: Before fighting a fire involving a flammable gas, turn off the source of fuel feeding the fire.  Often the best method for fighting a fuel fire, including propane gas, is to shut off the fuel supply valve. Moreover, even if you are successful in extinguishing a fuel fire, if the gas supply has not been turned off, this may result in an explosive accumulation of gas vapors which can lead to an explosion. 

Class C Electronic and electrical equipment still connected to power.

Class D Generally these fires are confined to manufacturing sites and involve fires fueled by combustible metals, such as magnesium, titanium, sodium, etc.

Warning:  ABC and other firefighting agents may cause a combustible metal fire to spread or increase in severity.  When in doubt, use dry sand to extinguish the blaze.  If feasible, stay back and work to prevent the burning metal from spreading the fire into other nearby combustible materials.  Waiting out a combustible metal fire may be the more prudent than fighting the main fire.  If the fire isn’t measurably growing, it may be more prudent to simply protect the surrounding area rather than try to put out the burning metal fire which is very likely also emitting noxious or poisonous gasses. 

Class K Kitchen fires, involving cooking oils, animal oils, and fats, which are typically ignited by stove burners, ovens or cooking vats, grills, and other cooking appliances.  Commercial kitchens are required to have automatic Class-K fire suppression equipment, but Class-K extinguishers are also available for home use.

Warning & Recommendation:  The powerful spray of a pressurized fire extinguisher can spread oil,  grease, and burning-liquid fires.  So, if you use a standard “red steel-bottle” fire extinguisher, start fighting the fire from a distance of 20-feet (6 m) and work your way closer to the fire.  Watch the effect closely, to make sure you aren’t inadvertently spreading the fire. 

Kidde-2packFire Extinguishers: Additional Selection Criteria

Size, placement, and the number of fire extinguishers you have on hand is a topic rarely addressed,  However, this is an important topic. 

A good example of this is the standard 2-1/2 pound fire extinguisher.  These simply are not adequate.  Nevertheless, it’s these small extinguishers that are found in most homes, workshops, cars, recreational vehicles and boats.  But since they only work for about 10-seconds, these are not even sufficient for many small fires.  If this is what you have, don’t replace it, just add to it. 

Store Your Fire Extinguishers by the Twos:  By the time you react and decide you need a fire extinguisher, grab it from where it is stored, and start fighting the fire, there is a good chance that you’ll need more than one extinguisher to put out the fire.  Thankfully, if you grabbed two 5-pound rated (10-pound physical weight) extinguishers at the same time, you may have what you need to put out the fire.  If you only have one it may not be enough.  So the first task is to double up and store two fire extinguishers near each location where a fire is likely to erupt.

If the fire is small and you are highly competent in the use of a fire extinguisher, a unit containing 5 – 10 pounds of fire extinguishing agent may be enough.  However, when it comes to preparing for a disaster or emergency situation, or rural firefighting, redundancy is important.  Have at least twice the number of fire extinguishers that you think you will need.  The old military adage is a good reminder:  “One is none, two is one.”  Establish redundancy into your preparedness plan. 

Escape  Ladders:

If you have bedrooms on floors that are above ground level, you either need a fire escape or a portable fire-escape ladder. These collapsible ladders can be stored in a bedroom closet where they can be quickly accessed if needed.  Use is simple. The window is opened, the u-shaped bracket for the rolled-up ladder is placed over the window sill, and then the ladder is allowed to unroll.  Be sure to pick a model that is long enough, and that it incorporates a method to keep the ladder away from the side of the house as this makes a decent much easier and faster.

Firefighting Equipment:  Other Firefighting Methods and Tools

Traditional fire extinguishers are not your only options.  Here are some additional tools which are worth including in your firefighting plan.

Chimfex_box-and-stickChimney Fire Extinguisher Chimney fires are always a risk, but additionally so when a fireplace or a wood burning stove is the sole source of heat, as is often the case during an emergency situation.  During periods of high use, even those homeowners who are meticulous about keeping their chimney clean can be hit with a no-warning chimney fire.  And, since these fires can reach 2,000 degrees (1,093 C) in less than a minute, it’s not unusual for a chimney fire to quickly spread into the attic and roof, and then throughout the entire house.  So if you have a fireplace or wood-burning stove, you need a plan for fighting a chimney fire. 

Many fire departments routinely use Chimfex Fire Extinguisher sticks to fight chimney fires.  These consumable fire extinguishers can be purchased online and at some fireplace and wood-stove shops.  This is arguably the easiest solution for fighting this type of fire.  It’s also the least expensive.  With a MSRP of $42, these are easy to use and post-fire clean up is a breeze.  We recommend a minimum of two (2) Chimfex Fire Extinguisher sticks for each fireplace and each wood burning stove in your home.

Made by Orion—the company which makes highway safety flares, the Chimfex Fire Extinguisher stick looks a lot like a 14-inch flare.  It’s even activated in a similar fashion.  After activation, the fire extinguisher stick is simply placed inside the firebox, next to the fire.  If there is a door or vents on the fireplace or stove, close them to force the fire extinguishing gases up the chimney.  As the chemical smoke of the Chimfex is emitted, the fire’s heat is cut in half and the oxygen is displaced, extinguishing the fire.  If the chimney fire isn’t completely extinguished within half a minute, add another Chimfex stick.  Be sure to avoid breathing the device’s chemical smoke as it is toxic. 

This simple method has been used by professional firefighters to put out chimney fires for more than 40 years with great success, so there is rarely a need to retreat to other methods—unless you didn’t have the foresight to buy a couple Chimfex fire extinguisher sticks.  Water and dry chemical fire extinguishers can also do the trick, but expect these alternative methods to do far more damage than a Chimfex stick.

Baking_Soda-Large_BagsBaking Soda Keep a large bag of baking soda in a handy location in your kitchen.  In the event of a fire, you can use it to extinguish a burning pan of grease, a fire created by a pot that boiled over onto a stove burner, as well as many other types of cooking fires.  If used quickly, it can be very effective.

After purchase, open the baking soda bag/box and then reseal it with a binder clip or a large paperclip so that it is quick and easy to open using only your hands.  Store the container in a cabinet near the stove or oven, but not above these appliances.  As soon as a fire flares up, open the bag and liberally sprinkle the baking soda onto the burning liquid, blanketing the burning surface to block air from getting to the fire.  With this method, you may even be able to eat your food after rinsing off the baking soda!

shovel-fireFirefighting with Sand and Dirt: 
Historically, buckets of sand were stored in garages in case of fire.  This sand was used to extinguish small gasoline, diesel and oil fires.  Just blanket the burning liquid with it to starve the fire by eliminating exposure to the air.  Though this is far less effective than using a fire extinguisher made for this purpose, it is an inexpensive, simple and handy alternative.  A bag of sand stored in the garage, off the floor and away from damp, is a worthy addition to your firefighting supplies even if you have a fire extinguisher nearby. 

Similarly, a small outdoor grass fire or fuel fire can sometimes be extinguished by shoveling dirt onto the burning material.  A shovel is a great firefighting tool for fighting small outdoor fires.

bucket_brigade_travisFirefighting with Water:  Ordinary water is a great way to extinguish fires fueled by burning wood, cardboard, brush, leaves and yard clippings, paper garbage and some plastics.  The problem with using water is that most people are not equipped to deliver the volume of water needed to fight a fire.  With water, a high volume of water is critically important. Regardless of your delivery method, adding firefighting foam to your water will greatly improve the effectiveness of the water by forming a blanket-like foam which helps deprive the fire of oxygen. 

If you don’t have a firefighting hose and related equipment, you can often extinguish a small fire simply by throwing multiple buckets of water on it.  This is generally more effective than using a garden hose, especially if there are enough people around to form a bucket brigade

Though many homeowners have attempted to put out a house fire using a garden house, it is rarely effective, even when the fire is small.  This is because the volume of water delivered is simply insufficient to stifle the fire.  That explained, it may still be better than nothing, but before you grab your garden hose, try to think of another solution. 

If you find yourself without anything other than a garden house, use the shortest length of hose needed to reach the fire, and keep the hose as straight as possible.  (Not kinked, and also not in a circle, nor wrapped around a hose cart.  This will increase the water flow and give you added pressure at the nozzle.)

Promising New Firefighting Technologies

In addition to new fire retardant building materials, there are a number of innovative products designed to automatically put out fires.  The below items are harder to find than traditional fire extinguishers but nevertheless worth considering.  These may be used as a first-defense against fire, but we recommend that traditional fire extinguishers also be available for firefighting.

AFO-Fire_Extinguisher_Ball-GrenadeFire-Extinguisher Ball  (aka/ Firefighting Grenade):  Though specifications vary by brand, most fire extinguishing grenades are only about 6-inches (147 mm) in diameter and weigh a modest 3 pounds (1.3 kg), yet they purportedly have the firefighting capability equivalent to several 5-pound ABC fire extinguishers.  Plus, they will work on ABC and E fires.  Since these four types of fires include 98% of all structure fires, these truly are a multi-purpose firefighting device.  [We have not yet had the opportunity to test this product]

Invented by the Israelis and in use by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), we have not yet had the opportunity to test this new product.  Several different brands are currently available online at prices ranging from $50-$230 per unit.  (It is the “Elide Fire” Self-Activating Multi-Purpose Fire Extinguishing Ball that is in use by the IDF.)  Expensive, certainly, but the cost is insignificant if it saves a life, or your house, shop or storage building. 

These “grenades” are a pyrotechnic device, designed to instantly blow an environmentally-safe fire retardant into the air, temporarily displacing the oxygen and thereby extinguishing the fire.  If activated in the middle of a fire, one ball apparently has the capacity to extinguish all fire within a 400 sq. ft. (37 m2) area.  Multiple grenades can be used in a larger room, but it is confined space which will maximize the effectiveness of the fire extinguishing ball.

Only minimally effective outdoors, in a confined area like a storage room, these may be extremely effective.  These dual-use balls can be used two ways.  For proactive defense, a fire extinguishing ball can be stored unattended in a room, ideally placed in its wire bracket, high on a wall or on the ceiling above the most likely source of a fire.  Or, the ball can be used to fight an active fire, by tossing or rolling it into a fire by hand.  Either way, after 3-10 seconds exposure to flame, the unit “pops” and fills the air with its fire extinguishing chemical.  

While not safe to hold when it discharges, these balls are supposedly safe for use in occupied rooms if the inhabitants have been rendered unconscious due to smoke inhalation.  However if possible, the ball should obviously be discharged in a part of the room away from people.  Yet, a minor injury from the ball discharging its contents would seem to be more desirable than death from fire.  But again, we have not personally tested these promising new devices.

Extinguish_Stick-50secFire Stick:  Developed for use inside the space station, this compact non-pressurized fire extinguisher is easy to use.  At only 1.7 x 10.5 inches in size (30-second model), an Extinguish Stick will fit into a cabinet, drawer, or the console of most cars.  However, we recommend that you store it in a visible location to ensure quick access.  Since this pipe-shaped device weighs less than 1-pound (.4 kg), several can be easily and compactly transported. 

Available in 50-second and 100-second models, the manufacturer claims that the Fire Stick is equivalent to a much larger and more expensive, 30/60-pound ABC Dry Chemical fire extinguisher.  MSRP is $100 for the 50-second model and $130 for the 100-second version, but discounts are available online.  (Be sure to compare apples-to-apples.  The 50-second and 100-second models of Fire Stick look essentially the same in photos.) 

Since the Fire Stick is lightweight and only requires the use of two hands to activate, and one-hand to use, it is not only ideal for astronauts but also us ordinary people.  Even a wheelchair or walker-bound person, as long as they have use of their arms and hands, can use one of these extinguishers. 

The downside of the Fire Stick is that once it is activated, it will immediately discharge its entire contents.  Unlike a traditional fire extinguisher which can be turned off, enabling the user to move to a new place to attack the fire on a new front, the Fire Stick operates continuously until it is empty. 

Rated for ABC and E fires, a Fire Stick is suitable for use with almost all types of fires we are likely to encounter.  The tube is simply opened, and the yellow activating ribbon removed, to initiate a chemical interaction which sprays retardant from the other end of the tube.  Since it is noncorrosive, it can also be safely used to fight fires involving electronics such as computers, as well as electrical box fires, burning liquid fires such as kitchen grease fires and automotive fuel fires, in addition to wood, cardboard, small debris piles, and small grass fires.

In use in Europe for several years, the Fire Stick is not in common use in the United States, so we have not yet tested this product.  Nevertheless, it looks to be a promising new firefighting technology.    

Kitchen Stovetop Fire Retardant Dispensers and Automatic Fire Extinguishers:   According to the National Fire Protection Association, kitchen fires are the #1 cause of home structure fires and home fire injuries.  Since distractions which take the cook out of the kitchen are the leading contributing factor, it makes sense to install an automatic fire extinguisher over the stovetop.  These range in price from highly effective units similar to those used in commercial kitchens, which start at about $200, to relatively inexpensive units which are simple to install that cost a more modest $40-75. 

Whichever model you select, be sure that your unit is designed to operate in the space you have available.  For example, units designed for use inside cooking hoods will not work effectively in the limited space under a microwave that is located above a stove.  Understand too, that the relatively low-cost units are often just automatic dispensers which pour baking soda onto the stovetop.  This can work very effectively, but it is a much different level of protection than that which is provided by pressurized automatic fire extinguisher designed for kitchen fires.


The bottom line is that we need to equip ourselves with firefight tools and basic skills now, in advance of the need.  Even under normal circumstances, we need to be proactive with our preparation.  This is important if we want to maximize safety and minimize our loss in the event of a fire.  We are conditioned by advertising to be meticulous about maintaining adequate fire insurance, but few take the additional steps necessary for prudent, personal preparation. 

When we take into account the increased risk of suffering a structure fire during a natural disaster, or a time of civil unrest, when the fire department may not be available to respond, we should feel a sense of urgency about these personal preparations.  An insurance settlement sometime in the future is irrelevant if you and your family are at risk today.

We appreciate and are thankful for our professional firefighters, but we have a personal responsibility to do our part in preventing and preparing to personally fight a fire.  If a fire strikes when no one is available to help, and we are adequately equipped and prepared, we may be able to handle the emergency ourselves.  Failure is not an option. 

During an emergency situation, if we are unable to deal with the problem ourselves, then the loss may be more than just our home or business.  We may risk the loss of life or the supplies and facilities we desperately need, to survive during a difficult time. 

Hope for the best.  Prepare for the worst.


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