It’s was a beautiful late summer day and I had put a 4 to 1 mixture of water and sugar on the stove in one of Sharon’s best stainless steel pots to bring to a boil. I have an affinity for birds, especially Hummingbirds, as they flit around a couple of feeders strategically placed in our yard. I was making nectar for the Hummers. Seems simple enough until you walk out back, leaving the mixture to cook down, burn into the bottom of the pot and emit the most God awful, acrid smoke imaginable. The smoke alarms activated and our alarm system notified our Fire Service, all before I could get the pot out of the house and call off our Fire Department. As they say, “don’t do this at home”. A day or two of moving fresh air through the house and an hour of diligent pot scrubbing brought things back to that magic state “like it never happened”. Since then, I’ve learned a few things about fire where you do not want it.
Since 1980, house fires in America have dropped by half. Is it time to reduce our fire service budgets? Hardly, as deaths from fire have risen steadily since 2010. Simply put, today’s houses are less safe in many critical respects, in spite of improved detection technology. Here is why. In house fires 40 years ago, the occupants had an average of 17 minutes to vacate the home. Today they have an average of just 3. You can credit the preferred open house plans of today as well as the proliferation of synthetic materials. These materials burn hotter and faster as well as emit deadly gases that can knock you down with the efficiency of a gas chamber.
There are more culprits. The current love affair with lithium batteries is another factor, particularly when charging. The consideration here is a phenomenon called “thermal runaway” resulting in the battery producing it’s own oxygen, necessary for virtually all combustion. Do you have these batteries in your home? Think cordless tools, scooters, hoverboards or your brand new electric car. These appliances should not be left unmonitored when charging……but we do it all the time. My experience with the Hummingbird food reminds us that about half of all home based fires result from cooking. Do not do as I did and walk away from the stove. Period. Only foolish people do not have functional smoke detectors in their home. Despite the obvious advantages of having one, many homes do not have an operating fire extinguisher in their home. (I have two, one in the garage and one in the great room/kitchen area.) Live in an older home? Are your sockets “tight” meaning do they firmly grasp a plug thus reducing the chance of arcing. Do you have GFCI circuits? Do you even know what these are? A thought for those building new. Sprinkler systems, depending on your insurance carrier, can result in a 10-60% reduction in premiums. Check into this as these systems cut the death rate in fires by nearly 90%, a very big number.
Finally, have you managed your property in order to reduce the threat of fire from external sources. I am not defending the climate change folks when I suggest it has been a prolonged hot, dry spell in much of the country. Wild fire is a growing threat, resulting in a number of calls for our fire service each year. Have you created a space around your home where combustibles are eliminated or mitigated? Did you know that burning embers from neighboring fires can easily travel over a mile and ignite secondary fires? (This is known as “firescaping’.) Where do you store the can of gasoline for the mower? These types of fires are becoming a greater event as developers push out to the fringes of our suburbs to build. Not sure about the fire safety aspects of your home, your local fire service will gladly help with an evaluation.
It is the Christmas Season and many of us, particularly those of us long in the tooth, are mucking about trying to buy gifts for each other when we really don’t need anything. Consider fire prevention/protection when making your list. Smoke detectors and fire extinguishers are obvious choices and may be the gift that guarantees Christmas together again next year.
Thank you Chief Jamie Kilburn, Brookline Fire and Rescue, the US Fire Administration and Consumer Reports for the information in this piece. It is called “fire science” for a reason and in this business, an ounce of prevention can prevent unspeakable tragedy.
Have a great week!