Fire is deadly. Every year more than 2,500 people die and 12,600 are injured in house fires in the United States. This equals an estimated loss of $7.3 billion annually, yet many house fires can be prevented.

Keith Burton of Saucier, Mississippi, can attest to that. According to, at 4:00 a.m. on July, 29, 2015, Keith woke up to the smell of smoke. “It’s hard to wake up at four o’clock in the morning and your house is on fire,” said Burton. According to the report, he quickly jumped into action, woke up his aunt in the next room and his nephew down the hall and started to get out. Burton knew one thing—his family’s belongings from years of calling this place home would have to be left behind. “All I could do was grab dogs and grab humans, and get out and sit here and watch it burn,” Burton said.

It takes about 30 seconds for a small flame to turn into a raging fire and only a few minutes for black smoke to saturate a dwelling. According to Burton, it didn’t take long for multiple fire units to respond to his home, and once they arrived, it took less than an hour for firefighters to extinguish the blaze. After the smoke cleared, Burton could see that a lot of his trailer was reduced to ash. “I’m grateful. I’m very grateful we all made it out,” said Burton.

According to Fire Chief Pat Sullivan, firefighters found smoke detectors throughout the home that were not functioning. Burton said the batteries had died and had not been replaced. Sullivan noted, “We don’t want to depend on luck to get people out of burning homes. We want to depend on the equipment, the tools, and smoke detectors are a proven way of getting early warning for fires.”

Burton and his family survived by a miracle, but he said the fire served as a wake-up call. “For everyone out there, check your batteries. I mean, it’s common sense. It could mean the difference between life and death.”

To understand fire, one should understand what it takes to make a fire, namely heat, fuel and oxygen. A heat source is responsible for the initial ignition of a fire, and heat is also needed to maintain the fire and permit it to spread. A fire’s heat alone can kill. Room temperatures in a fire can be 100 degrees Fahrenheit at floor level and rise to 600 degrees at eye level. Inhaling this super-hot air will scorch your lungs. This heat can melt clothes to your skin. In just five minutes, a room can get so hot that everything in it ignites at once, an effect called a “flashover.”

Fuel can be any kind of combustible material and is characterized by its moisture content, size and shape, quantity and the arrangement in which it is spread over the landscape. The moisture content determines how easily a fuel will burn. Air contains about 21-percent oxygen, and most fires require at least 16-percent oxygen content to burn. Oxygen supports the chemical processes that occur during a fire. Once a fire is going, this chemical chain reaction will sustain the fire and allow it to continue until at least one of its elements is blocked.

Plan & Prevent

Planning is the key to prevention. A home assessment of high-risk areas in your home is the first step. These areas may include the kitchen, anywhere fuel is stored and the electrical panel. Ensuring that those areas are organized and protected is the first step towards preventing a fire.

Knowing how you’ll escape is the cornerstone of any home’s fire safety plan. You should always have two ways to escape from a room, particularly a bedroom. This may include a window, which may necessitate having an escape ladder tucked under the bed. Make sure the room’s windows are easy to open and that screens or any security mechanisms can be removed quickly. Practice escaping from your home by feeling your way in the dark or with your eyes closed. Most importantly, conduct a fire drill at home twice a year and practice your escape plan, including teaching children not to hide from firefighters.

A properly installed and maintained smoke alarm is the one and only thing in your home that can alert you and your family to a fire 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A working smoke alarm significantly increases your chances of surviving a deadly home fire.

For the best chances, install both ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms, or dual-sensor smoke alarms, which contain both ionization and photoelectric smoke sensors, in every level of your home, including the basement. Make sure you test the batteries monthly and maintain a battery-replacement schedule of at least twice a year unless you have a 10-year lithium battery. Replace every smoke alarm unit in your home every eight to 10 years or according to manufacturers’ instructions. And always keep a smoke alarm operational; never disable one, even if you tend to cook a lot and produce smoke often.

In addition to smoke alarms, having fire extinguishers in your home can assist with combating a small fire if you are trained in how to use it. Additionally, investing in a whole automatic sprinkler system may literally save your life if a fire were to begin. When sleeping, keep your doors closed and ensure you have a plan, and teach your children what to do in case a fire occurs. Another good option is to ask your local fire department to inspect your home for fire safety and make recommendations to address them.

Make Your Escape

If you are home and a fire does occur, your first option is to escape by any means necessary. Get out immediately and contact the fire department. If your first exit is blocked, go to your second.

If the house is already full of smoke or you are trapped, drop to the ground where the cooler air is and crawl low under any smoke to your exit. Heavy smoke and poisonous gases collect first along the ceiling.

If you are behind a door, before you open it, feel the door and doorknob. If either is hot, leave the door closed and use your second way out. If there is smoke coming around or under the door, leave the door closed and use your second way out. If you can’t, place a wet towel at the bottom of the door to block the smoke, and use colored tape or a light at the window to alert any firemen to your location.

If you must open the door, open it slowly and be ready to shut it quickly if heavy smoke or fire is present. The first priority is to get out. If others or pets are still in your house, leave the home and call 911 or the fire department. Tell the emergency operator where the people are located.

If your clothes catch fire, stop, drop and roll—stop immediately, drop to the ground and cover your face with your hands. If you or someone else cannot stop, drop and roll, smother the flames with a blanket or towel. Use cool water to treat the burn immediately for three to five minutes. Cover the burns with a clean, dry cloth and get medical help right away by calling 9-1-1 or the fire department.

Road To Recovery

Surviving a fire and recovering from it will be traumatic. The losses will be overwhelming. Here are some things to consider to assist with recovery. Contact your local disaster-relief service, such as the Red Cross, if you need temporary housing, food and medicines. If you are insured, contact your insurance company for detailed instructions on how to protect your property, how to conduct an inventory and how to contact fire-damage-restoration companies. You’ll also want to notify your mortgage company of the fire. If you are not insured, try contacting private organizations for aid and assistance.

Prior to entering your damaged structure, check with the fire department to make sure your residence is safe to enter and that the utilities are either safe to use or are disconnected before they leave the site. If you leave the area, let the police know your home site will be unoccupied.

Make sure you save any receipts for any money you spend related to fire loss. The receipts may be needed later by the insurance company and for verifying losses claimed on income tax. Even though Keith Burton did not have functional smoke detectors, he did one thing right—he left things behind and focused on saving people, which ended up saving his family members’ lives. In the event of a fire, remember that every second counts and being prepared is the key to surviving. 

This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE™ Spring 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.

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