On a sub-zero December evening, Tyson Steele awoke to find the roof...
This article originally appeared in Issue 9 of our magazine.
While many people associate dry summer weather and 4th of July fireworks with wildfires, fire season never truly ends. In fact, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, Halloween brings a spike in reported blazes thanks to decorations igniting and arsonists starting mischief, while cooking for the Thanksgiving holiday is the leading cause of residential structure fires. And as you might have seen in our feature “No Rain Delay” in Issue 7, we showed how it’s possible to start a fire in inclement weather.
So, naturally, in this article we’re going to teach you how to stop a fire from starting — or at least help you reduce the probability of your house going up in flames. Some of the logic we offered in Issue 7 for getting a fire going can be used in reverse to keep it from starting or to extinguish it before it’s out of control.
As always, your mind is the most powerful survival tool at your disposal — so teach it, train it, and most of all keep it focused on the solution rather than the problem. When it comes to blazes destroying your property, that problem can often be started with a wildfire, a kitchen fire, an act of arson, or a negligent neighbor who fell asleep while smoking. To avert your home from being engulfed in an inferno, it starts with what Benjamin Franklin long ago suggested: prevention.
Above: This house and its balcony are surrounded by bushes and trees, all perfect tinder for a passing wildfire. These should be cleared so there’s a defensible space around the dwelling.
When we discussed the flammability of resources in the wild, we pointed out that certain types of tree bark are easily combustible while others are not. For example, pine bark is not very flammable and, as such, is often used as ground cover in landscaping. However, the “crown” of a pine tree (the top of the tree with pine sap oozing from it) is very flammable. You may remember in Issue 7 that we used wet pine needles to start our fire in the rain. With that in mind, a growing fire could have a difficult time reaching the crowns without “ladder fuels.” Ladder fuels are shrubs, plants, and debris near the ground that can catch fire and spread the flames to the tops of the trees, igniting them like giant match sticks. Once the tops of the trees catch fire, they easily pass the flames laterally from crown to crown even if there’s no fire on the ground.
Above: Pine bark might not be very flammable, but the needles, and particularly the crown of a pine tree, are quite the opposite.
It may seem like a no-brainer, but it needs to be made brutally clear: It’s necessary to clear dead brush, branches, and leaves away from areas you wish to preserve — be it your abode, your office, your campsite, or your bug-out location.
Above: Dead leaves are the perfect fuel for an inferno. Remove them promptly to take away a fire’s ammo.
Some of the worst culprits of being ladder fuels are decorative and ornate plants that are desirable to the eye, but are dangerous nonetheless. One of these is the coveted manzanita bush. Manzanita bushes have deep red branches and tiny lush red “apples” that, when in season, are considered beautiful by many. Alas, a 3-foot-high manzanita bush can emit flames more than 20 feet high when fully engulfed.
Above: Found throughout western North America, manzanita is used as an ornamental plant because of its looks and drought-tolerant characteristics. Unfortunately, it’s also a “ladder fuel” that can spread flames. Keep them away from your house and other, taller trees.
Each geographic area has its own plants to be aware of, so we don’t have the space in this story to list them all. Fortunately, most fire departments can do an analysis of your property for such plants.
There are other plenty of other things in and around your home that can light up your property like a Christmas tree — and there’s a good chance you either put it there or paid someone to put it there. These everyday objects include decks, balconies, wood siding, stacked lumber, and anything else that can fuel combustion. Look around and try to find things that could spread the burning to your house. Look for dead branches on trees that can be cut or a buildup of dead leaves or pine needles in your rain gutters. Try to imagine flying embers landing on or near your home and identify the things that could be ignited by them.
As mentioned before, your local fire department will most likely come and assess your property and make suggestions about how to minimize the risk of fire. It’s a good idea to do this sooner rather than later; if a home is fully engulfed, firefighters cannot save it and will turn their attention to homes that can be saved. You definitely want your property to be one they think they can save!
OK, so what if the fire starts inside your home? Sure, you might be the most careful, risk-averse person on the planet, but accidents still happen. It’s time to brush up on basic fire suppression techniques.
Whether it’s rain dampening a forest fire or a firefighter’s hose making short work of an urban fire, water is one of the most reliable flame extinguishers available. It’s worth mentioning that when camping, we should fully saturate a campfire with water, turning over each piece of wood to make sure it’s completely extinguished before leaving.
Solids in the Kitchen
While water is an age-old fire killer, it’s common knowledge that you shouldn’t use it to put out a grease fire on your stove because H2O will actually make the fire worse. It’s better to use a solid — like salt, flour, or baking soda — to smother it. Also, you could use a lid to cover the pan and eliminate the fire’s access to oxygen.
Solids Outside the Kitchen
Electrical fires can be dealt with in much the same way, but can be smothered with a blanket, heavy clothing, or a towel. Just be wary of using smothering materials made of synthetics like polyester, which could melt under intense heat. Oh, and like a grease fire, using water on an electrical fire will only make things worse.
These devices are compact, relatively inexpensive, and easy to use (though be sure to read the instructions). Most people know that when using a fire extinguisher, it’s better to direct the extinguishing agent at the base of the fire and not at the flames.
Gels & Foams
Most people buy fire extinguishers and place them in rooms where a fire is likely to start, such as the kitchen, the garage, or near the water heater. That may be enough to extinguish a small fire, but what if a massive neighborhood-consuming blaze is approaching? The next step is to buy a fire suppression gel or foam that can coat your home, campsite, or vehicle in the event of an approaching fire. Some available brands are Barricade, Phos-Chek, and Thermo-Gel.
How do these gels work? Essentially, the homeowner attaches a gallon-jug of this substance to a garden hose and sprays it on just about any surface. A 4-gallon case will cover approximately 2,000 square feet, including trees, shrubs, and plants to create a fire-break, which is a sort of thermal shield against radiant heat and direct flames. The treatment can last up to 36 hours depending on environmental conditions. High temperature, strong winds, and low humidity will reduce the time span of the product’s effectiveness, which could be as short as six hours. The product effectiveness can be extended by very lightly misting the product with water. It should be noted that a thicker application will also improve the overall effectiveness.
Note: Fire gel and foam systems are dependent on the water pressure at your facility. Water pressure is often reduced during a fire due to the extreme amount of water being sucked out of the fire hydrants. Also, if you’re on a water well system, you may not have sufficient pressure to effectively douse your property. Fortunately, there are alternative solutions that aren’t dependent on water pressure from existing utilities. These systems pump water from an available water source — such as a pool, pond, water tank, hot tub, or jacuzzi — and combine that water with the gel or foam solution. The difference in price is often based upon water flow, calculated in gallons per minute, and the quality of the pump itself. There are many companies offering these products so you can do your own research and choose the product and/or supplier that best meets your needs.
We’re not suggesting that you try to fight a fire yourself unless there is no other alternative. You should definitely evacuate when directed to do so by the fire professionals. Remember, the fire gel and the other aforementioned techniques are designed to give you a little more time to pack up the kids, vital items, and provisions before bugging out while also giving you hope that your home will still be there when the fire has passed.
Fire suppression is not too dissimilar from any other topic we cover in the sense that much of your success can be determined in advance by proper planning and training. If you have already performed preventive landscaping and acquired fire-protection materials before the SHTF, you can focus on the timely application of said products and on getting your loved ones to a safe zone both quickly and safely. Like we said, your mind is the most powerful survival tool at your disposal, so if you can keep your head in the game, you have a much better chance of winning.