Everything You Need to Know to Keep Your Home and Family Fire Safe

In light of recent wildfires in the Pacific Northwest and the Sonoma Valley, many Americans find themselves thinking about fire safety. Some fires, like the ones that leveled more than 100,000 acres in California last week, feed on high winds and dry conditions. Others come as a result of careless fire treatment, faulty wiring, or other household causes. We gathered a few tips on keeping your family safe before, during, and after fire.

Ensure your smoke alarms work properly

a brown house goes up in flames

Fire consumes a barn as a wildfire moves through California. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The American Red Cross recommends installing one smoke alarm on every level of the house, and one outside each sleeping area. That includes areas where pets sleep. Teach children what they sound like, and what to do if they hear one. Test them monthly, and replace the batteries at least once a year. Choose an easy-to-remember date, like an anniversary, your birthday, or a holiday, to help yourself get it done. Fresh batteries typically last a year, so don’t worry about replacing them earlier, unless the detector starts to chirp.

Next: In the event of fire, make sure you can get out.

Set a family escape plan and practice it

firefighters climbing up to an american flag in a home, in orange

Firefighters remove a U.S. flag, as flames from the “Wall Fire” close in on a home in California. | Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Make sure every member of your household knows at least two ways to escape from each room in the home. Make sure windows open easily, and practice feeling your way out of the house with your eyes closed, since smoke can obliterate sight lines.

Your plan should include a meeting place outside, and at a safe distance from the home. According to Ready.gov, once a fire starts, you might have as little as two minutes to escape. Practice your escape plans and time it. Smoke and heat pose the two greatest dangers in a house fire. Room temperatures during a fire can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit at floor level, and 600 degrees at eye level, so practice getting low and crawling to safety.

Next: Best practices to prevent fires 

Practice fire safety at home

a pan on a gas burner on a stove

Fire safety can depend on proper cooking, heating, and general awareness. | John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

Natural disasters happen, but fire safety goes a long way. When cooking, stay in the room and wear tight-fitting sleeves, or roll them up. Keep kids at least three feet from the stove by employing a “kid-free zone.” When barbecuing, position the grill at least 10 feet from railings or siding, and away from overhanging eaves or branches.

Never smoke in a home where oxygen is used, even when it’s turned off. Dispose of butts in ashtrays, or buckets filled with sand, and always stub them out completely. Soak ashes or butts in water before throwing them away and never empty ashtrays with hot ashes in the garbage. Never smoke in bed, and practice extra caution when drowsy, taking medication that affects your awareness, or drinking alcohol.

Next: Home hazards to avoid 

Keep your home appliances and furnishings fire-safe

firefighters on a ladder in front of a building with smoke

Frayed or damaged appliance wires can cause a spark, leading to fire. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Frayed wires can cause fires. Immediately replace old, worn appliance cords and never run them under rugs or furniture. Use three-prong cords only in their intended outlets — forcing them into two-prong outlets can cause sparks. If light switches or plugs become hot to the touch, or lights flicker when turning them on or off, replace them. That’s a sign of a short in the system. Inspect and clean chimneys and wood-burning stoves regularly and keep vents clear. Use a fire screen that covers the entire opening, and never go to bed before putting the fire out completely.

Keep combustible cleaners and fluids away from heat sources, and never use stovetops or ovens for heating the home. Never use portable generators inside, and make sure portable heaters have safety mechanisms that make them shut off automatically if they tip over. Never leave candles unattended, and watch children and pets around open flames.

Next: What happens if you get stuck in a fire ?

Know what to do in the event of a house fire

the frame of a house engulfed in flames

Flames ravage a home in the Napa wine region in California. | Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

When trying to escape a fire, feel all doorknobs and doors before opening them. If it’s hot to the touch or smoke comes in around the frame, find another way out. Open doors slowly, and get ready to shut it quickly in the event fire or heavy smoke behind it. If you can’t get out of a room, shut the door and block the door frame and vents with clothes or tape to keep smoke out.

Stay put and signal for help at the window with a light-colored piece of fabric or a flashlight. If your clothes catch fire, stop, drop, and roll side-to-side until the fire goes out. If someone else catches fire, throw a blanket or sheet on them to smother it. Treat burns with cool water afterward for 3-5 minutes and cover with a cool, dry cloth. Seek medical attention immediately.

In the event of any house fire, always call 911. Describe specifically where and how the fire started, and direct firefighters to any trapped persons or animals in the home. When dealing with a fast-moving emergency-like fire, calm, clear communication becomes key.

Next: The aftermath of house fires 

If your house catches fire, protect yourself afterward

a firefighter in silhouette puts out a forest fire with a hose

The aftermath of a house fire can overwhelm homeowners, but help exists. | Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images

Contact your mortgage and insurance company as soon as possible directly after a fire occurs. According to Homeinsurance.org, standard home insurance policies typically include the building itself, your property within the building, and additional living expenses if you need to move elsewhere. Liability coverage kicks in if someone is injured on your property, and you or someone in your household is found legally responsible. Insurance does not cover arson and fire in an unoccupied home, so if you only use your residence part of the year, make sure your policy stays current after 30 days.

Your insurance company can provide you with information about what it needs to protect you. Make sure to save all receipts for anything you spend related to fire recovery — that includes hotels, replacement clothing and goods, and clean-up services — to provide documentation later. If you do not have insurance, disaster relief companies can help. DisasterAssistance.gov has a list of resources.

Next: The first few days after a fire 

What to do after the smoke clears

the shell of a fire burnt house with wine racks

Burned out wine bottles sit on a rack at the fire-damaged Signarello Estate in California. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ready.gov also has tips for what to do after a fire. First, ensure your home is safe by checking with the responding fire department before re-entering the structure. Never try to reconnect utilities yourself. Call your utility company or the fire department for help. Conduct a thorough inventory of all household goods and belongings.

As tempting as it seems, do not throw anything away before taking photographs and finding out what your insurance company needs. Try locating valuable documents and goods. If you can’t find those, the Federal Emergency Management Agency created a list of contacts for replacing them. The Department of the Treasury will replace burnt money, as well. FEMA created this brochure for help in those first few days, including how to get money and government documents replaced.

Sometimes, house fires happen no matter how carefully we prepare. The road to recovery seems long and arduous, but resources exist to help. If you fall victim to fire, even after following all of these guidelines, don’t despair. Hope — and help — are out there.

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