One small spark is all it takes to start a fire that could destroy your home. We chatted to Working on Fire to find out about the causes of home fires, how to prevent them and what to do if they happen.
Fire spreads quickly and destroys everything in its path. We saw this at the start of 2020 when the Australian bush fires raged for weeks, in 2018 with the George fires, and in 2017 with the Knysna fires that destroyed nearly 1 000 homes. Although the Knysna fires didn’t start in homes, an investigation into the fires found that home preparedness could have reduced their impact and damage, and saved many houses.
The first step in being prepared and knowing how to deal with a fire at home, is knowing what causes a fire to start.
Why do fires start at home?
Some of the causes of fire at home include:
- Overloaded and damaged electrical sockets – an electrical spark can start a fire
- Unattended pots or hot appliances – for example a dishtowel can catch fire if it is too close to the appliance or hot plate for too long
- Flammable material catching fire such as curtains that are close to open flames
- Wooden household furniture too close to electrical appliances such as heaters and stoves
- Unattended candles – or any unattended fire such as a braai
- Children playing with matches
- Working with power tools on a hot, dry and windy day – power tools like angle grinders, welders and chainsaws make sparks, which can start a fire
Other causes of fire include lightning, which is believed to have sparked the Knysna fires, or being in the path of a bushfire.
When you know what these causes are, you can prevent fires by being diligent and prepared. First step is to prevent the fires, but you also need to know what to do if one starts in your home or your house is near a raging fire.
Prevent fires at home
Many of the fire prevention methods involve good home maintenance such as clearing gutters, and putting the braai out when you are finished. Here are Working on Fire’s tips to prevent fires at home.
Watch the vegetation close to your home:
- Clear dry vegetation from gutters and vents
- Prune trees growing close to your house
- Trim or remove dead and dry plants and grass away from your home
- Do not burn refuse, tyres and plastic on a windy day (this may be illegal in your area)
- Always keep the area around your home clear of materials that can burn such as firewood and garbage
- Ensure there are no illegal electrical connections near your property
- Make sure the area around open flames is clear of anything that can burn
- Closely supervise all outdoor fires
- Avoid building your house on a steep slope in fire prone areas (fires can spread very quickly up and down slopes)
- Never use combustible building material for your house
- Avoid areas which are periodically exposed to severe fire weather and strong winds
- Avoid building a home in areas that fire engines cannot access or have no water supplies
Fire-proof your home inside:
- Place candles in safe candleholders that will not burn
- Avoid using candles in bedrooms and sleeping areas and extinguish candles when leaving a room or going to bed
- Make sure appliances and lights are correctly wired
- Unplug appliances not in use
- Keep water and electrical appliances far away from each other
- Never throw water on burning oil, rather smother it with a lid or a damp cloth
Lastly, Working on Fire say you should educate your children about the danger of fires. Fire stations often run safety and awareness campaigns and days so ask your nearest fire station if you and your family can attend one of these and learn more about fire.
If a fire starts
There are two critical things you need to do:
- Have safety and fire-fighting equipment on hand
- Have a safety drill to follow
Fire safety equipment
Working on Fire say you should keep a sand bucket, fire blanket or fire extinguisher close by to put out small fires.
Fire blankets can be used to extinguish small fires in the home. They can also be used to wrap around a person whose clothes have caught fire. You can buy a fire blanket online or at local hardware stores from around R200 – R300.
Fire extinguishers can also be bought at hardware stores or online. Prices start at around R300, but costs depend on how big your extinguisher is and what type of fire it is suitable for.
There are four classes of fire: A (wood, paper), B (flammable liquids like oil), C (electrical fires) and D (chemicals). The different classes of fire respond differently to extinguishing materials, for example water may be suitable for wood, but not an oil.
When you buy a fire extinguisher, ask what kind of fire it puts out and make sure this is suitable for your home. Your fire extinguisher should have one of the classes on it, so you know what it is used for. Remember to read up on how to use extinguishers , and check them at least once a year to make sure they work.
Your home fire drill
Although you can extinguish small fires, be very careful because fires can easily get out of control. Working on Fire say it is best to call for help while the fire is still small.
If a fire breaks out in your home have a fire safety drill so you and your family know what to do. Always have an emergency number on hand to call such as 10111 or an app like MiBlackBox, and keep important documents packed in an emergency kit in case you need to evacuate your home.
Here’s what a fire drill could look like:
- Evacuate the building immediately – know the quickest exit route out of the house
- Crawl under the smoke, low to the ground, to the safest exit to avoid poisonous gas
- After leaving the building, proceed to your designated assembly area
- Report the fire to your local fire station, emergency services or safety app as soon as you are sure you are safe
- Don’t stand in the driveway – emergency responders need clear access to your home
- Practise your evacuation plan with everyone living in your home so you are all prepared in the event of a fire
If your clothes are on fire:
- DROP to the ground
- COVER your face
Have an annual check up
It’s a good idea to check your fire plans, fire prevention measures and fire safety equipment at least once a year so you know it’s all working well. If you live in a sectional title scheme or homeowners association ensure that the fire equipment undergoes routine maintenance.
Accidents happen so it is always a good idea to prepare – especially when, like fire, they can be so devastating. Remember that people come first, possessions second, and know your emergency numbers and drills so you can act quickly.