Every single year in the United States, the United States Fire Administration tallies anywhere from 350,000 to 450,000 thousand residential house fires. The results of these fires are billions of dollars in property damage, tens of thousands of injuries and thousands of deaths.
A house fire is one of the most common and consistently one of the most dangerous everyday emergencies that any prepper can face.
In seconds, a small accidental fire can go from minor nuisance you can stop to invincible, raging inferno; one where the temperature is skyrocketing over 600 degrees F (315 C) and all visibility is lost from roiling, black smoke. It is altogether too easy to be overwhelmed by heat, noxious fumes or disorientation.
After that, your fate is pretty much sealed. To prevent this grim eventuality, every single person in the US, especially preppers, should have a cast iron fire escape plan and practice it with their family, or anyone else living with them.
In today’s article, we’ll take you through the process and procedures for crafting your own home fire escape plan.
The Toll of House Fires
It should be obvious to anyone reading this just how dangerous a fully involved house fire is. But even knowing that, it is good to know what toll in both lives and material lost these fires extract every year in the United States.
When you dissect the nearly 400,000 yearly residential house fires that occur, you’ll come up with the following results: these fires will cause $7 billion dollars in damage, in excess of 2,500 deaths and in excess of ten thousand injuries.
Most house fires result in a total loss of contents, even if the house is not burned completely to the ground. After a house fire, everything you own may literally go up in smoke.
For preppers, this is especially awful: every meticulously stocked provision, every piece of gear you had to scrimp and save to obtain, all the supplies, all the resources- lost, utterly.
Keep in mind that your house catching on fire may be just the beginning of your survival odyssey. It would be a terrible way to start, that’s for sure.
What You Are Up Against
House fires are shockingly intense and go bad for the inhabitants quickly. Before you can craft an effective plan for escaping or combating a house fire you need to know what you’re up against.
You need to know what the fire can do and how fast it can do it. Just as importantly, you need to know what you’ll be facing so you don’t freeze or panic.
Saying fire is hot is the understatement of the millennium. Once ignited, a house fire can reach several hundred degrees in a matter of seconds. Understanding the dynamics of heat is an important factor for crafting your house fire survival plan.
Down near the floor, the temperature from a raging fire may only be around a hundred degrees. At neck and head level, however, it may be a searing 600 degrees.
This level of heat has a terrible effect on any exposed skin, but will also damage your lungs if you breathe it and melt your very clothing.
Low or No Visibility
You may think that seeing where you were going will be the last thing you’re worried about during a house fire considering your whole house will be a light source. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
House fires generate incredible amounts of thick, black smoke that will take visibility down to near zero in almost no time. It is easier than you think to get lost in your own home; you have to plan on feeling your way out.
A flame from a single candle can turn into a fully involved, raging house fire in only 30 seconds. Half a minute.
A minute or two after that and the entire interior will be filled from floor to ceiling with black smoke and the entire house will be ablaze.
A house fire can kill you in two ways, each of them equally deadly. While the notion of dying by fire is an especially terrifying one, you only have a 30% chance of this occurring: it is most often times the smoke and toxic gases generated by burning house that do the killing.
One or two lungfuls of the smoke from a house fire is all it takes to disorient you or potentially incapacitate you. If you should pass out from smoke inhalation inside a burning building, you are probably doomed.
Now that you understand the nature of the beast, you can better plan to escape its wrath.
Fire Escape Planning for Personal and Property Protection
You know that fires can grow out of control in no time, reach incredibly intense temperatures in very short order, blind you completely with billowing smoke and subsequently incapacitate or even kill you before the flames reach you.
Knowing this, you now know that your fire escape plan will depend on speed, certainty and flexibility. There is absolutely no time to waste when you have to get out of a burning building. Mistakes, indecision or getting disoriented can spell the death of you and your family.
And like any good plan, you’ll need to make preparations to set yourself up for success prior to chiseling your plan in stone.
Failing to follow through on these preparations could lead to disaster, as they all directly affect your chances of escape. After we cover these simple preparatory elements, we will get into the planning for escape phase itself.
Fire Escape Preparation
Sometimes your best efforts at staying fire safe and preventing a fire from happening entirely fail. Maybe it is a freak accident, maybe it is catastrophic equipment failure, a bolt of lightning or some evil arsonist.
Whatever the reason, why ever it started, you should take the following preparations to give yourself better odds of escaping, or, with a little luck, containing the fire.
The following guidelines and procedures will help you escape a house fire with your lives and hopefully most of your hair intact, and are provided by FEMA and the United States Fire Administration.
Have Fire Extinguishers
If you don’t have a fire extinguisher, preferably multiples, inside your home you have done every single thing wrong since you woke up this morning. Make sure you get multiple, large ABC rated fire extinguishers and learn how to use them.
If you’re only facing a small fire, you might certainly be able to put it out with a fire extinguisher. If the blaze is already too large to combat, a fire extinguisher might be the only tool that can buy you a brief window to escape. Keep your fire extinguishers serviced and in top working order.
Install and Test Smoke Alarms
Disclosure: This post has links to 3rd party websites, so I may get a commission if you buy through those links. See my full disclosure for more.
Everybody knows or should know by now that you have to have working smoke alarms distributed throughout your house. Make sure they work, test them monthly or even weekly, and change the batteries yearly whether they need it or not.
One tech-savvy upgrade you might consider investing in is networked smoke alarms. This simply means that all the alarms in the house will go off at once if any single sensor detects a fire. This can afford you early warning in case the fire starts out of range of one of the detectors.
Practice Escaping by Feel Alone
It cannot be emphasized enough just how dark and blinding it will be during a house fire, even in the middle of the day with half the house up in flames.
You should know your way out of your home by feel alone, using walls, corners, door frames and other architectural features as landmarks for navigation. This skill may save your life. Take it seriously.
Check Doors and Windows
It is essential that all doors and windows open easily and fully so you can escape quickly in case of a fire. A sticky deadbolt, a stuck latch on a window or something like security mesh or bars could trap you and see you killed.
Ensure that all door and window hardware operates easily and smoothly with minimal effort, and any security features have a bypass or quick release mechanism in case of emergency.
Clear Egress Routes
Don’t let your egress route be blocked by anything. Overgrown plants like trees and shrubs, decorations, kids’ toys and more can all create slip, trip and fall hazards or injure you if you have to bail out of a door or window in a hurry.
Keep all pathways out of your house, even emergency pathways through windows, clear of anything that might hinder you.
Ensure a Quick Response
Go out to the street leading up to and directly in front of your home. Is your home clearly visible? Is the house number easily seen both day and night?
If your home cannot be easily seen from the road, take steps to correct that with reflectors, new numbers, paint, etc. this will ensure that emergency responders can find your house quickly after dispatching.
It almost sounds a little silly; you really need a map to your own home? Is there any place on Earth you know better than your own home?
That isn’t the point; the point is you should draw a scale map of your home so you can illustrate the escape routes and better visualize them.
This is an especially important step when it comes time to plan and practice escaping with your family. Each room in your home should have a minimum of two escape routes, defined as a door to the outside or window that all people in the home can fit through.
Plan for a Tough Egress
You might not have any choice in a two-story home except to bail out of an upper-story window. Instead of risking a badly broken bone in a fall, invest in fire escape ladders.
These lightweight, telescopic ladders are easy to use with a little practice and will make escaping from an upper-story window fast and easy. For windows on the first floor, be wary of any sharp or thorny plants that may be planted beneath the window.
For decorative or for defensive purposes they are great, but they can tangle you up and snag you. Throwing a heavy blanket over them will help.
Have a Plan for Infants and the Infirm
If you have anyone with limited mobility in the home, such as babies, the elderly or those with physical limitations make sure you assign another member of the household to their safe retrieval or assistance. Make sure to have a “Plan B” person if the primary rescuer is not home.
Designate a Meeting Place
All members of the house should know where to go and regroup after they have exited the house. This could be the end of the driveway, a neighbor’s house or something else.
Discuss Your Plan
Meticulously go over your plan and map with your family and any other people staying in the home. Make sure people know how to escape from every single room, both routes, and can do so entirely on their own in case you are unable to find them during a house fire.
Practice, practice, practice
Complete several evolutions of your fire escape plan starting from various places in the home. Use a crawl, walk, run methodology to increase difficulty in realism.
Run a drill in daylight with no other stressors at first. Then do the same drill again but crawling. Then you should try a surprise nighttime drill (after warning your family ahead of time, of course!) complete with a manual test of the fire alarms to add stress.
A blindfolded “by feel alone” escape is also a good idea.
Emplace Bug Out Bags on Escape Routes
You should place your bug-out bag along an intersection between several escape routes, or in the master bedroom so you have the best chance of grabbing it on the way out of the home.
Make sure to put anything completely irreplaceable inside the BOB as well so that it will survive the fire. It doesn’t need to be the end of the world for your BOB to be useful: if you lose absolutely everything you own, you’ll be glad to have what supplies and provisions you do inside your BOB at the very least.
Time to Get Out!
If you are alerted or wake up to a house already half engulfed, you have to get out. If you happen upon the fire when it is small, approximately 3 by 3 ft, you have a chance to stop it if you have a fire extinguisher close at hand.
Once it is any larger than that though, your chances of putting it out drop drastically. Don’t waste time and risk your life fighting a lost cause.
Smoke is thicker and contains poisonous gases the higher it is from the floor. Also recall the heat from a fire is far more intense since heat rises. Get low, stay low and crawl to an exit.
Test the Doors
Before you commit to opening any door always feel the door itself and the doorknob to see if they are hot. If they are, fire is probably close or raging on the other side. Don’t risk it; pick an alternate escape route.
Open Doors Slowly
When you do commit to opening a door, do so slowly. If you feel heat rush through or smoke billows in, close the door quickly and latch it. Now is the time to again look for an alternate escape route.
If you cannot escape from the room you’re in, close the door, close or cover all vents and cracks around doors. This will help keep the smoke out. Remember that smoke is the biggest killer, not fire.
You can stuff these crevices with cloth or use tape if you have it handy. Call 911 and let them know where you are in the home. Stay there and signal for help using a flashlight or by hanging cloth out of the window.
Typical home fire extinguishers are often ineffective against full-blown blazes, but you can successfully use one to open yourself a small window of opportunity to escape through a fire before it gets too large.
Make sure you strategically place your fire extinguishers in the home not only where fires are most likely to start, but where you can access them easily to help you clear an escape route.
Stop, Drop and Roll
If you catch fire, you know what to do- stop, drop and roll! When you drop to the ground, cover your face and then roll back and forth over and over until the fire goes out. Ultimately you can smother flames using a blanket or other large cloth.
If You Cannot Reach Trapped Persons
Do not waste time if you cannot reach someone trapped in the home by fire. Get out as fast as you can, call 911 and notify the fire department of where the person is located inside.
Do not re-enter the burning home for any reason! Firefighters have the skills, equipment and knowledge to conduct a rescue with success. Chances get higher and higher by the moment that you will become a casualty.
After you escape, if you or someone else have been burned use cool water to treat the burns immediately. Irrigate the affected area for 5 minutes with as much water as you can muster.
Once you have done this, apply no other treatments to the burn site: simply cover it gently with a clean, dry cloth and seek medical attention right away.
House Fire Preparation Should Be Top Priority
House fires are extremely common and highly dangerous events. Your best chance for surviving a house fire is to have a good plan, practice it and drill it over time.
As a prepper, it is your responsibility to be ready for such an event, and your family and other loved ones will be looking to you to lead the way. Make sure you carefully review and understand the procedures presented in this guide and use them to formulate your own fire escape plan.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.