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How to prepare for a fire emergency

House devastated by fire emergency preparedness (1)

It’s natural to worry – particularly about fires. After all, it’s one of the most common natural disasters that North Americans face. Because of this reality, families should do all they can to prepare for a fire emergency.

According to the Canadian Red Cross, home fires typically happen in the winter, due to the increased use of heating sources such as fireplaces, lights and candles. Wildfires, on the other hand, strike when conditions are hot and dry. In the western provinces and states that can be in the early summer or late fall — after rainy season water had dried up and brush has become dry and brittle.

While the first line of defence in any fire emergency is your smoke detector and fire alarm, there are a number of other steps you can take to prepare for a potential home fire or wildfire emergency.

Your guide to emergency preparedness

Step 1: How can you prevent a fire?

how to prepare for a fire

There are several ways to help prevent both a house fire and not be the cause of a potentially devastating wildfire.

House fire

To prevent a house fire, make sure that you have testing and fully functional smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms throughout your house. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), you should have at least one smoke detector on every level of your home and one in each bedroom. For example, if your home has three floors and four bedrooms, you should have seven smoke detectors on your property.

As smoke rises, the best place to keep your smoke detectors is on ceilings or high on a wall. Keep in mind, your alarm should be far enough away from kitchen appliances to avoid false alarms, and also a fair distance from vents, fans and windows. Regardless of what type of smoke alarm you have in your home, be sure to test each alarm out twice a year to verify that it is working properly.

Wildfire

We must do our part to prevent wildfires in our communities. Be sure to call your local fire department if you notice any fires that seem to be out of control in your area. If you have a fire at your local park or even your backyard, do not leave it unattended at any point. Before you leave, ensure that you put the fire out completely. The best way to put out a fire is to douse it with water and stir the ashes until they become cold.

If you are or know of any smokers, note that you should never throw a cigarette from a moving vehicle. The same behaviour goes for matches or other smoking paraphernalia. If you are burning yard waste, you should never light a fire on a windy day. Keep water nearby and remember to remove anything flammable from your yard before you begin.

Step 2: How can you prepare for a house fire or wildfire?

The best way to prepare for a fire emergency is to create an evacuation plan and know the route ahead of time. You should always have a general emergency kit at home for all types of disasters. Still, there are some items specific to evacuations that would make sense to add, including additional clothing and relevant documents or paperwork.

House fire

For a house fire, creating an emergency evacuation plan is essential. Your fire escape plan should include two ways to escape from every single room in your home. Once you are aware of all escape routes, it’s crucial to practice evacuating the house within two minutes. Once a home starts to fill with smoke, it can be hazardous. So, practice leaving your home low to the ground. Your plan should include a safe meeting place outside of your home that is across the street in case parts of the house falls or scatters.

Wildfire

For a wildfire, create a plan that includes an evacuation route and a second safe location for you and your family to stay. You will have a limited amount of time to gather emergency supplies if authorities have ordered an evacuation. You must have a comprehensive emergency kit prepared that you can grab and go. From there, pack some extra clothing and all of your essential items.

A grab and go emergency preparedness kit should include:

  • Food (select ready to go, packaged food, such as protein bars, nuts and dried fruit);
  • Water (at least 1 litre per family member);
  • Phone charger and battery bank;
  • Small battery-powered or hand-cranked radio;
  • Battery-powered or hand-cranked flashlight;
  • Extra batteries;
  • First-aid kit with all basic needs (gauze, bandaids, antiseptic wipes, tensor bandage);
  • A few days supply of personal medications (for each family member);
  • Personal toiletries and items (including supplies for the baby and feminine hygiene products);
  • An extra pair of glasses or contact lenses (if required);
  • Whistle (to alert someone that you need help);
  • Local map with your family meeting place identified;
  • Seasonal clothing and an emergency blanket;
  • Pen and notepad;
  • A few small games and puzzles to occupy the family;
  • Copy of your emergency plan, copies of important documents, such as insurance papers;
  • Cash in small bills.

Finally, create a checklist that reminds you of important tasks you may forget amid the evacuation, including unplugging all electronics, emptying your fridge or freezer, and turning off your water.

Step 3: What should you do during a fire?

Burning house emergency preparedness fire

During a fire, it can be very hectic and scary. Do your best to follow the plans you had to prepare for a fire emergency and follow directions from the authorities.

House fire

During a house fire, you must get out as quickly and safely as possible. Once you are safely out of the home, stay out. You should never return to a building that is on fire.

To get out, first, you must check for any smoke through cracks of your door. Then quickly touch your door handle to assess whether it is hot or not. If it is hot, there is a fire right on the other side of the door. If the door handle is not hot, then it’s safe to open the door. If you see smoke, but no fire, drop the ground and stay low. Doing this helps you see clearly and allowing you to escape without inhaling too much smoke. Fail to do this and you may pass out from too much smoke inhalation.

If you find you are unable to exit your home using your initial exit plan, turn to your back-up plan. If that escape route is blocked, and you know that help is on the way, then put a damp cloth underneath the door of the room you are in and find a way to signal to others that you are in this room and require help. Good signals are simply calling out for help, banging repetitively and making noise.

If you exit your home and have not done so already, call dial 9-1-1. Do not reenter the building.

Wildfire

Typically different from that of a house fire, you may have a short amount of time to pack up and evacuate your home. This is why you need to have a grab-and-go emergency preparedness kit ready for you and your family.

If you find out you have more time, consider taking these precautions:

  • Remove all flammable materials from your front and back yard;
  • Close all of your windows, vents and doors to reduce the risk of smoke damage;
  • Turn off your gas lines (to prevent fuelling a fire in the home);
  • Fill your bathtubs and garbage cans with water to slow any fire that may reach your home.

Before you evacuate, ensure that you have cash on hand and that you are wearing protective clothing or footwear in case there is flying spark or ashes in the air. If your respiratory health is compromised, such as someone with asthma, consider bringing a face mask to reduce the inhalation of smoke. Finally, lock your home and do not return until authorities allow you to do so.

Step 4: How to recover after a fire

Fire danger sign dessert emergency preparedness fire (1)

After a fire, you may not be sure where to start. First, and most importantly, do not return or reenter your home unless you have authorization. If you are healthy and able, be sure to check on your family and surrounding neighbours who may also be impacted. If you are injured or ill, seek medical help.

From there, it’s time to get organized. If you do not have a place to stay, consider asking your local government for temporary accommodation options. Very often in large wildfires when evacuations are required, temporary emergency shelters are set up to help those displaced from their homes. You can also ask friends and family for support or a helping hand if needed.

Once you have a place to stay, it’s a good time to contact your insurance company and open a claim.

If you can return to your property and there is minimal damage, or you’d like to recover what remains, be sure to wear protective gear as you navigate the property. It may take a few cleaning sessions to get rid of odours and stains. You should also discard any remaining food or water that is potentially contaminated. Keep in mind that smoke from the fire may be too hard to remove with simple soap and water. Quite often, even buildings that don’t suffer the physical effects of a fire end up with an open insurance claim as the clean up from smoke damage can be a long and expensive process and sometimes requires the homeowner to throw items out and replace with unsoiled items.

Dealing with any unexpected situation is not easy, but it can be even more challenging to overcome when it involves a natural disaster. Give yourself time to do a mental check-in and allow yourself to digest the emergency you just went through.

Image of Alyssa Davies & Romana King

Alyssa Davies & Romana King

Alyssa is a personal finance blogger who focuses on mixing finances with laughter. She is a content specialist at Zolo. Romana is an award-winning personal finance writer with an expertise in real estate. She is the Director of Content at Zolo.