CopTalk: Fires and Fire Prevention

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Fires and Fire Prevention:

Unless you’ve actually been inside of a burning building, you’ll never be able to imagine the sheer terror and panic that can overcome you in seconds! 

In the past 24 years I’ve had to be inside many burning structures that were fully involved. Both as a firefighter protected by full emergency gear and clothing, and as a Cop in only a short sleeve uniform shirt having to make a “quick” dash inside because the fire department wasn’t on scene yet.

Most people will never have to go through the agony of perishing in a fire, because the first thing that happens is the heat sears your lungs and you’re overcome by Smoke and Toxic gases which sends you into unconsciousness. Everything that happens after that you usually don’t know about because you’re already dead!

You don’t need us to tell you what the causes of fire can be. Read the newspaper about any fire that occurred and you’ll usually find out what started it. You do need us to remind you of what can start fires and how to protect yourself.

Keep in mind that for a fire to burn it needs three things. 

Fuel

Heat

Oxygen

Take away one of the ingredients from the “fire triangle” and fire cannot burn

House Fires:

Stove left unattended while cooking

Electrical wiring in poor condition

Exceeding suggested loads on extension cords

Cigarette related combustion (smoking in bed, dumping ashtray in garbage, etc)

Flammable liquids stored improperly

Chimney is dirty and covered with soot

Roof fires

Fireplace not properly screened

Portable space heaters

Electrical appliances in poor condition

Rags stored carelessly with flammable solvents

Vehicle repair done in the garage

Christmas trees and lights

Propane and charcoal barbecues

Grass Fires:

Lit cigarettes discarded on the roadway

Sparks from vehicles and other gas engines

Lightening strikes

The list is a long one. The above are only some of the factors involved when I responded to fire emergencies over the past 14 years. So many times I looked at the death and destruction from the aftermath, and could easily see how most of these fires could have been prevented. Why can’t others see the same clear picture?

I worked the area in the Oakland Hills fire after a massive firestorm devastated the area. What could all of these residents have done to avoid their losing their homes? One of my best friends and his wife owned a home up in those hills with a spectacular view. Not more than a few weeks after they had sold the home and moved, the firestorm occurred.

All that was left was a standing brick chimney.

There will always be a threat to homes from fire. Both from fires that start inside the home, and fires that start elsewhere and threaten your home. In Southern California the infamous “Santa Ana” offshore winds claim thousands of homes and cause millions of dollars in damage every few years.

Whether you live in a High Risk Fire Area or not, you have a responsibility of doing your own Fire Prevention at home.

Do you live in a high-risk area like the heavily wooded hills in Oakland? Or do you live in a flat residential dwelling with very little threat from outside fire.Or do you live in a duplex or high rise apartment complex?

YOU have to be your own firefighters! You have to do your own Fire Prevention.

  • If you live in a heavily wooded area you had better have your house surface area cleared of weeds.
  • If you live in an apartment complex you had better consider the possibility of one of your neighbors smoking in bed and you having to evacuate in seconds.
  • You need to have fire extinguishers located throughout your home.
  • You need to have Smoke Alarms and Evacuation Routes.
  • You need to pay attention to outlets that “crackle and spark” when you use a plug.
  • You need to check extension cord and appliance cords that get warm, an obvious sign that the cord is being overloaded.
  • You need to use the ASHTRAY IN YOUR CAR instead of throwing lit cigarettes out your car window.
  • You need to get those Gas Cans out of the garage.
  • You need to check for the smell of propane before lighting barbecues and portable heaters.
  • You need to get rid of those Shake Roof Shingles and have your chimney cleaned on a yearly basis.
  • You can’t leave young children unattended at home for ANY REASON. Earlier this year a father in a nearby community left for work leaving his two young children home alone for a short time until they left for school. The children started a fire, were quickly overcome by smoke, and never went to school. They went to Heaven. YOU CAN’T LEAVE KIDS ALONE!
  • You need to contact your local fire department and see if they offer free home fire safety inspections. Their fire prevention officers can point out ways to not only make your home safe for prevention, but can also advise on what types of fire fighting protection you need in your home as well as the importance of Fire plans and Evacuation routes.

Folks, if you don’t take the steps in this area who is going to?  In the early fall when people start using their fireplaces, guess what types of fire calls come in by the thousands?

Chimney & Roof Fires

 It’s a cold chilly night in November. You have a nice roaring fire at work in the fireplace. You’re sipping a glass of wine with your significant other, and you grab the fire poker to shift those pieces of oak around a little bit to get the fire burning more evenly. Those hot embers and hundreds of little sparks look cool as they fly up the chimney out of your sight.

You turn up the volume of the stereo, or pop in a video into the VCR.  After about 30 minutes your phone rings and you answer. It’s your neighbor across the street screaming for you to get out of the house because your roof is on fire!  You can’t believe what you are hearing, and you ask your neighbor if they are kidding.

About that time you look out the window and see a strange yellow and orange glow reflecting on the street. You go outside to investigate and you discover that the entire west end of your roof is ablaze, emitting 20-ft flames into the air. You call out to your significant other to call 911 while you run for the garden hose.

It’s a battle you won’t win. And then you suddenly remember your kids are asleep upstairs. You run into the house just as the smoke alarm sounds, because now the fire has spread to the inner roof and attic area.  Deadly smoke is now starting to filter into the ceiling area of the house interior. You grab your kids who are still half asleep and you exit your house just in time to hear sirens in the distance coming from all directions in the city.

In the next 60 seconds that it will take for the firefighters to arrive, power up the pump, and lay the hose lines, an eternity will pass in your mind. Everything will go into slow motion. My God, what’s in the attic? Family pictures and treasures holding sentimental value. Hundreds of things that can’t be replaced. Ever.

You stare in disbelief as the Firefighters start pumping 300 gallons an hour onto your roof. Other firefighters have climbed onto your roof and are punching a hole in your roof with an axe, to give the smoke a place to go, and to find the extent of the interior fire.

When it’s all said and done, you end up with $50,000.00 in smoke, water, and fire damage, loss of irreplaceable childhood and family photos, personal items, and all for what? What did you do wrong?

All you did was have a little fire going for a night of relaxation while watching a video.

You didn’t do anything wrong intentionally, but there are steps to take to make sure that this doesn’t happen to you!

  • Have a Chimney Sweep CLEAN your chimney! Compared to the loss noted above, $50 bucks is a bargain in lowering your chance of a roof or chimney fire. A Chimney Sweep will brush and vacuum the chimney and flu, removing built up soot and oily residue that can ignite.
  • Some Chimney Sweeps inspect, repair, or install smoke arresters on the top of your chimney. It might cost a little more, but what do you think caused the fire mentioned above? Flying sparks cause millions of dollars in damage each year.  Sparks can cause chimney fires, roof fires, and grass fires. And not just to your own property.  Your neighbor doesn’t believe in the same weed abatement program that you do, and the 3ft growth of tall dry grass grows in his yard right up to the side of his house.

Sparks from your unprotected chimney top can fly 25 ft up over your rooftop, and get caught in the wind. The wind that is blowing in your neighbors direction. Guess what happens when those burning embers touch down in all that tall grass? 

And this fire will be much more swift and unforgiving than the example given above.  Fire burns much faster and with greater intensity from the ground up, than it does from the top burning down to ground level. Once the side of a house catches on fire, it’s not long before the entire house goes.

  • Wood shake shingles. They look great.  They are cost effective. And they are a Firefighters worst enemy!  Talk about flammable. Picture yourself camping, preparing to make a campfire. You gather small pieces of twigs and bark, and place them under larger pieces of wood. You strike a match, and ignite the small twigs that will in turn ignite the big pieces of wood. Shake roofs are a campfire waiting to happen! A spark lands on a shake roof on a hot dry day or evening, and in minutes you could have a roaring campfire on your very own roof!  Shake shingles are the kindling to the large pieces of wood in your fire. The large pieces of wood in this case are your roof!

Composite tiles? Not as flashy as Shake, but are you worried about looks or safety?  Costly?  No.

If you want to add looks, consider the clay or ceramic tiles. They look good, and they don’t burn! 

Costly?  Yes.  Safe? Yes.

  • Keep your yard well groomed.  Not only will it keep your neighbors happy; it will greatly reduce the chance of an accidental grass fire from turning into a tragic structure fire. A couple hours a month of yard work is worth the effort.  Let it go and before you know it you have 3-foot weeds that neither you, nor your mower will want to deal with. When you do decide to deal with it, it will take a good couple weekends to tackle it, rather than staying on top of it with just a couple hours a month! 
  • Before re-roofing or remodeling, consider calling your local fire department to speak to a fire safety officer or fire prevention officer.  Many departments offer free home inspections to assist you in making your home and property safer against the chance of fire.

Someone came up with the saying; “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  I’ve seen people left with nothing more than a box or two of charred rubble because they never imagined losing their home to a fire.  Please invest in that “Ounce of prevention”. No one else will do it for you!

JL

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