The giant killer fires in California command our attention, but smaller fires take American lives every day. Since the beginning of this year, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, there have been 63 home fire deaths in Indiana. In recent days, residential blazes in Fort Wayne and Huntington accounted for four of those deaths.
Common sense is the best defense against most causes of fire. “I could go on all day,” Assistant Chief Jim Murua of the Fort Wayne Fire Department said in an interview Tuesday as he rattled off things to watch for this holiday season. Inattentive cooking – “it's the leading cause of house fires”; frayed or overloaded extension cords and Christmas lights with worn cords or broken bulbs; fireplaces without glass or metal doors to contain embers; improperly vented appliances. Keep space heaters at least three feet clear of combustibles and turn them off when you leave the room. And need we mention candles – the old-fashioned kind with burning wicks – or cigarettes, the leading cause of house fire deaths?
You don't have to obsess. Most of the time, nothing goes wrong. But, as Murua put it, “We get complacent.” A little planning now may prevent a tragedy if fire ever does strike your home.
The first, vital step: Make sure there are working smoke detectors on every level of your home – including one near, or ideally in, each bedroom. Detectors should be rigged such that if one sounds, they all do. “They give us the advantage that we're going to get outside safely,” Murua said.
The second vital step: Have a safety plan. “Make sure all the people in your household know how to safely evacuate your home,” Murua said. Make a diagram of your residence's exits; go over with it with your children. Keep bedroom doors closed – that can slow down the spread of smoke and flames. In multilevel apartment buildings or homes, have an escape ladder in each bedroom, and a stool or stepladder in case adults or children have to exit through the window.
“People really need to practice,” Murua said. “Smoke can come through your house pretty quickly, and make it hard for you to breathe.” Flames racing through a structure can be as hot as 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, he said. But more often, people are incapacitated by the smoke, which can also reach several hundred degrees and may be filled with carbon dioxide and other chemicals that can make it hard for residents even to think clearly. Planning and practicing can help prevent panic and disorientation.
Take your cellphone if it's handy, but don't waste time trying to save valuables. You may only have a minute or two to safely get out. Smoke rises, so try to stay low as you escape.
Outside, have a prearranged place to meet, away from the house, and call 911 as quickly as possible. Don't go back in; concentrate on directing firefighters to where a pet or person may be trapped.
Murua said pets often react quickly and escape on their own. But “you could end up losing your life to go back in to get your pet.”
Much more about prevention and planning is at FortWayneFireDepartment.org, including details on how to get the department to bring a smoke detector to your home and install it free of charge.