Ask a Firefighter

Posted: Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Every day, Americans experience the horror of fire. But most people don't understand fire. Only when we know the true nature of fire can we prepare our families and ourselves. Each year more than 4,000 Americans die in fires. An additional 25,000 are injured and some $3.5 million in property is damaged. Most of this could be prevented.

Question: So what do I need to know to better understand the characteristics of fire?

Answer: Understanding some of the simple facts of fire can reduce fire deaths.

Fire is fast

There is little time. In less than 30 seconds, a small fire can get completely out of control and turn into a major fire. It only takes minutes for thick smoke to fill a house. In minutes, a house can be engulfed in flames. Most fires occur in the home when people are asleep. If you wake up to a fire, you won't have time to grab valuables because fire spreads too quickly and the smoke is too thick. There is only time to escape.

Fire is hot

Heat is more threatening than flames. A fire's heat can kill. Room temperatures can be 100 degrees at floor level and rise to 600 degrees at eye level, with temperatures at the ceiling reaching more than 1,500 degrees. Inhaling this super heated air will scorch your lungs. This heat can melt clothes to your skin. In five minutes, a room can get so hot that everything in it ignites at once: This is called flashover.

Fire is dark

Fire isn't bright, it's pitch black. Fire starts bright, but quickly produces black smoke and complete darkness. If you wake up to a fire you may be blinded, disoriented and unable to find your way around the home you've lived in for years.

Fire is deadly

Smoke and toxic gases kill people more often than flames do. Fire uses up the oxygen you need and produces smoke and poisonous gases that kill. Breathing even small amounts of smoke and toxic gases can make you drowsy, disoriented and short of breath. The odorless, colorless fumes can lull you into a deep sleep before the flames reach your door. You may not wake up in time to escape.

Fire safety tips

In the event of a fire, remember time is the biggest enemy and every second counts. Escape first, then call for help. Develop a home fire escape plan and designate a meeting place outside. Make sure everyone in the family knows two ways to escape from every room. Practice feeling your way out with your eyes closed. Never return to a burning building for any reason; it may cost you your life.

Finally, having working smoke detectors dramatically increases your chances of surviving a fire. And remember to practice a home escape plan frequently with your family. Remember, an ounce of prevention could save your life and those you love.

This column is provided by Gary Hale, fire marshal with Central Emergency Services.

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