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Within the rogue’s gallery of catastrophe that might befall a typical American family, little is more destructive than a devastating house fire. The only saving grace might be that these fires often start while everyone is away from the home, keeping the situation from becoming unimaginably worse.

In 2012 there were 365,000 home fires reported in the United States. These fires resulted in 12,875 injuries, 2,380 deaths and $5.7 billion in damages. While these numbers are down slightly from previous years (for example, there were 723,500 fires and nearly 6,000 deaths reported in 1976), fire is still one of the most destructive, costly and preventable calamities in the country. To put this in perspective, there are 42 house fires in the U.S. every day that are caused solely by improperly used candles, and 36 percent of those fires result in a fatality.

The most devastating fire in U.S. history, discounting the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, occurred in 1903 in the Iroquois Theater in Chicago when 603 people lost their lives in that blaze. In more modern times, the fire at the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas in 1980 claimed 85 lives. The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island, took the lives of 100 patrons in 1990. The fire at the Happy Land social club in New York City a month later killed 87. While fire detection and suppression technology has made great strides in recent years, fire still remains a deadly threat both in the home and in public buildings.

Everyday Lifesavers

There are half a dozen simple household precautions that can prevent unimaginable tragedy. In the case of house fires, proper gear and preparation demonstrably save lives. Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are cheap and reliable. There is literally no excuse for not having them regardless of your station in life. The simplest sorts run on replaceable batteries and are available at any box store for a modest cost. Their ear-piercing shrieks are sufficient to awaken even the heaviest of sleepers and they let you know, typically in the middle of the night, when their batteries need to be changed. Devices from Kidde (kidde.com) and First Alert (firstalert.com) are great places to start.

For greater convenience, detectors and alarms can be wired into an existing electrical system. These detectors all sport a battery backup and, though more expensive, require less attention. However, you should test all alarms monthly and replace them every 10 years.

Devices like the Nest Protect from Nest Labs (nest.com) speak to you in a woman’s voice designed to command attention from children by mimicking a generic mom. These extraordinary devices differentiate between burned toast and a raging house fire and respond accordingly. They also link into a larger home automation system and provide remote monitoring and management via a smartphone or tablet.

Basic tools can become lifesavers. Stashing a few old blankets in a tool shed can help a family keep warm after leaving a home quickly in an emergency. Maintaining an appropriate fire extinguisher in the kitchen can keep a small fire from becoming a large one. Handheld fire extinguishers are cheap and should be kept in each vehicle as well as liberally scattered throughout the home.

Training is the key to survival in most crises. Run through hypotheticals with your children and make a plan as well as a backup plan. Then rehearse the plans until everybody in the family can execute them when cold, groggy and disoriented. Determine primary, secondary and tertiary egress points for everybody in the family. Make a dispassionate assessment of the gear that is needed to escape safely. Establish who is responsible for retrieving young children and then make sure everybody knows the outside rally point so a quick headcount can be taken in the event of an emergency.

Risk Assessment

Natural foliage makes for beautiful seasonal décor, but you might want to think twice before bringing the outside in. We had a cluster of cattails spontaneously combust several years ago in our pantry. We never found out what ignited them, but it was simple luck that kept the resulting conflagration from burning our home to the ground. When you think about it, settling on plastic imitation flowers and leaves might not be the worst idea.

Those skinny brown extension cords overload easily and cause hundreds of fires annually. Never run cords underneath rugs where they can overheat or break down from extended foot traffic. A single heavy cord is always better than several small ones.

Think through your actions in the event of a grease fire in the kitchen in moments of quiet. Never overload electrical sockets and be careful about how you store batteries. A 9-volt battery brushed across a bit of steel wool makes a splendid improvised fire-starter that is easy to carry in the field and remarkably effective.

Prevent Holiday Horror

A great many of our traditional seasonal festivities can be simultaneously fraught with danger. Statistics bear out the fact that unattended candles, electrical decorations, copious natural greenery and the innate risks of space heaters in cold weather make for a particularly hazardous time of year. Inattention to fire safety during the holidays can turn celebration into tragedy in moments.

If allowed to dry out a bit, natural Christmas trees explode like bombs when ignited. The energy contained in all that dry greenery is quite literally breathtaking. Were that heat to be released indoors, the results would be inevitably catastrophic. Keep trees away from anything that could make them catch fire—fireplaces, candles and open cooking.

Candles are an indispensable part of the holiday season, yet these attractive little ignition sources can be incredibly dangerous if not closely monitored. It’s best not to burn them in the open.

Fireplaces are cozy, romantic and, in areas with ample access to deadfall, inexpensive to operate. Make sure fires are broken up before retiring for the evening, use fire screens religiously and never decorate the mantle with combustibles. Any fireplace will sputter and pop periodically, and a single ember thrown into a Christmas tree or some other bit of flammable décor can ignite instantly. As such, never leave fireplaces unattended.

Seasonal lights can get hot, particularly if left on for long periods, and that string of old Christmas lights running through the cut spruce branches that smell so nice can become a terrible fire hazard. Technology improves our lives in a million little ways and newer LED Christmas lights run much cooler and cheaper than the older sorts. Check all light strings for frayed or exposed wires before decorating, and take care not to overload your sockets.

Basic precautions need not interfere with the holiday spirit, but the difference between a joyous time with family and a tragic inferno can be found in some of the most innocuous details.

Insure Your Safety

Not all fire insurance is created equally. There are three broad categories that determine what is covered and to what degree. Most homeowner’s insurance will pay the actual cash value of your home (less depreciation) based upon the age of the dwelling. Replacement-value policies are more expensive but do a better job of actually replacing your home and possessions without an enormous out-of-pocket cost. The replacement of a home’s contents is usually capped at 50 to 70 percent of a dwelling’s cost.

The risk of catastrophic fire damage goes down incrementally every year based upon better technology and public awareness of fire dangers, but there is still little that is more destructive.

FIRE SAFETY ESSENTIALS

Fire Extinguishers: These are cheap and available most everywhere. A handy $20 fire extinguisheis the only reason my workshop is not a scorched slab today after an unfortunate accident with a propane torch years ago. Keep one in the kitchen, the car and near the fireplace. Make sure everybody knows where they are and how they work.

Early Detection: Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that is the product of most any incomplete combustion process. Human hemoglobin has a much greater affinity for CO than it does for oxygen, so suffocation in the presence of significant CO concentrations is actually quick and painless. Most modern detectors are sensitive to both smoke and CO and are very reasonably priced. Test them regularly, install one anywhere you or your kids might sleep, and take one along in the camper while traveling. Smoke detectors are ubiquitous and inexpensive. There is no excuse to be without them.

Crisis Tools: Stash a hatchet or prying tool at a place where you can find it in the dark and in a hurry. Some doors require keys to lock both inside and out and knocking a window out with a hatchet is infinitely preferable to using your hands.

Escape Ladders: If the window is on the second floor you will need some way to get down without breaking your legs. Folding rigid ladders or rope versions that roll up and tuck away are available at modest cost. Practice with the gear when it is peaceful so you aren’t trying to read the instructions by the light of a house fire.

 
Fight The Darkness: Chances are that if you are crawling around on the floor trying to escape a house fire, it will be dark and disorienting. Keep a good-quality flashlight next to each bed, and change out the batteries every year
on your birthday.

Comm Options: Many Americans no longer maintain landline phones in these days of cellular devices. Teach children to be able to relate their address and dial 911 as soon as they are old enough to understand. Keep your cell in a consistent spot at night so you can find it in the dark without any undue groping. Charging your phone in the same place in the house every time is an easy way to establish these habits.

ARE YOU READY?

Emergency Services: Get on a first-name basis with the cops in your community and introduce them to your family. If children get to know what firefighters look like suited up, hopefully they won’t be afraid to go with them if they ever need to be rescued from a fire. Posting the non-emergency numbers for fire and police services in a handy spot can help answer questions. Know the addresses of the closest stations and how to get there both on foot and in vehicles.

Get Covered: Insurance policies come in a variety of flavors at a variety of price points. Agreements should be pursued quickly with insurance companies after a fire and familiarity with the details of your policy puts you in a much better position to negotiate. You also might want to keep a copy, along with insurance contact information, some place other than your home. Maintaining a modest stash of important documents in your car or with a friend can ensure you have access to them after a catastrophe.

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