Fireproof my house
December 15, 2015 7:33 PM   Subscribe

I'm terrified of my home burning down. What can I do to prevent or minimize this risk?

I live in an apartment building. The unit is on the second floor. (6 units total in the building.) The building is 100 years old but rehabbed/modernized 30-40 years ago. In-unit washer/dryer, dishwasher, central heating and cooling (forced air). Furnace, water heater, washer/dryer and kitty litter all in one small closet. Plenty of powerstrips (surge protectors) around the house. Working but rarely used fireplace. Some floor lamps rescued from alleyways (should I worry about old wiring?)
posted by Jason and Laszlo to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
The best defense is to eliminate the biggest problems from your house burning down. Have great renters/homeowner's insurance. Take regular inventories/pictures of your belongings (and e.g. serial numbers on electronics). Back up your data to the cloud. Get a safe deposit box and keep important documents and things there, as well as a fire safe for things you have to have on hand (they're better than nothing, but they're not actually for real fire/water proof if it's bad enough).

Also, things like making sure you have good and appropriate fire extinguishers and know how to use them and when to use what on a grease fire vs wood fire, etc, as well as having good smoke detectors and whatnot, and doing what you can to make sure your whole building gets their detectors checked regularly.

But given that you live in an apartment building, you can't control things like your neighbors leaving a candle unattended because they're idiots or covering the smoke detector near the kitchen with a shower cap because once they burned a steak (why yes, I have seen this), and those are the things that are likely to start fires, not keeping your kitty litter in a closet.
posted by brainmouse at 7:41 PM on December 15, 2015 [8 favorites]

Don't use candles or incense or other burning things. When you are cooking, stay in the kitchen if there is something on the stove, especially if you are sautéing. Have a kitchen specific fire extinguisher(a white one).
posted by rockindata at 8:08 PM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Since you're on the second floor, it would be useful to look into fire escape ladders.

I am also very scared of my home burning down. I have read (probably on Metafilter!) that sleeping with the door closed is a good idea. You have very little time to escape from a burning building, and having the door closed can give you crucial seconds. Candles are also a hazard, especially with a cat around. It sounds simple, but leaving a candle burning unattended is far too risky.

Register with Smart911, if your city has it, to make it easier for the fire department to find you.

I agree with brainmouse that ameliorating the effects of a fire is one of the best things you can do. I know two people who went through major fires and they survived (one of them had moderate burns but recovered well) but the aftermath was horrendous; neither of them had insurance and had to start from scratch. One of them also lost pets, can you get those stickers for your door and window (I know you're on the 2nd floor, but might help) alerting to fire department to your cat(s)? It might be wishful thinking that those stickers will help, but there's no harm in them.

Powerstrips are your most likely hazard because of the danger of overloading them, they're not actually protecting you! I have powerstrips that alert if they're overheating. I can't find them online right now, but I've seen them in different Targets over the past few years. There's also these strips that supposedly alert you as well, although I'm not sure how useful that is since I rarely can see my powerstrips. I'd make ensuring that you're not plugging too much in any one powerstrip your first step.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 8:12 PM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Make sure your dryer's lint trap is cleaned every time you run it, and if possible check to make sure the vent tubing is reasonably clean as well. A friend of mine burned out his new apartment the first day he did laundry because he was used to emptying the lint trap immediately after running the dryer, and apparently the previous tenant had the opposite pattern; dryer fires are no joke. If you are able to take a look in the vent duct and it's full of lint, you should clean it out, or if cleaning it is beyond your ability and you have an extra $10-$20, just buy some flexible ductwork from the hardware store and replace it. If by any chance it's a gas dryer, make sure you get the heavier-duty ducts; an install tech told me that modern gas dryers run hot enough that the really flexible metal ducts can be damaged.
posted by biogeo at 8:13 PM on December 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

To make sure you don't create a fire in your own apartment: turn off lights when not in the room, post a reminder in your kitchen to turn off the stove/oven as soon as you're done, put any electronic devices you want to turn completely off when not in use on a power strip that has a switch. If there are baseboard heaters, keep them at a low level when away and keep them clean and objects a safe distance away. If you have a fireplace, make sure it's checked yearly, either by you or by the landlord, depending on the responsibility. Make sure it's clean before starting it, and turn it off with enough time to let it cool down a little before going to bed. Keep your dryer lint trap clean and don't leave the dryer going when you leave home, if it's in your unit. Keep your stovetop clean, and if it's a gas range, make sure the heating elements are clear of debris. If you have an outdoor grill, keep it well-maintained.

To make sure you can respond quickly if a fire breaks out: keep a well-maintained fire extinguisher in a readily-accessible spot. If your place doesn't have hard-wired central smoke detectors, install some good ones. If possible, get ones that are networked or can alert in multiple ways other than audio, in case you have someone watching your place who is hard of hearing/vision. If you do have hard-wired ones, make sure the backup batteries are maintained, to the point of checking the detectors by hitting the test button regularly.

Also, in case of fire, make sure you keep your essentials (pet carrier if you have pets, your essentials (like a coat, shoes, wallet, keys) in a place you can quickly grab them on the way out the door.

But really, don't worry too much.
posted by mikeh at 8:18 PM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Depending on where you live, you may get reassurance from a visit from a Fire Prevention Officer from your local Fire Department. Usually even smaller departments have someone whose job it is to 'prevent fires'....sort of a 'put ourselves out of business department'. Many of them will come and visit your residence, even help install smoke detectors, and help you check for hazards. If you are comfortable inviting them into your home, this can be a great way to look for non-obvious hazards and correct them. The downside is, you are inviting people who have a great deal of power over your landlord into you premise, and if they found major problems, this could make you a very unpopular take this into consideration. Even if you aren't keen on an actual visit, you can always drop by the firehall and they will be happy to hand over fire prevention brochures, etc, which can give you good hints.
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 8:31 PM on December 15, 2015

Loud fire alarms, no open flames, etc. Many cities you can call the FD and arrange to have a firefighter come out and survey your home for fire hazards and tell you how to ameliorate them and talk about escape routes.

Have a personal fire drill. Practice escaping. School fire drills have made "children dying in school fires," a thing that used to happen with alarming frequency, into a thing that ALMOST NEVER happens. Because they don't panic and they've rehearsed how to escape the building. Do that at home!

My irrational fear of fire (having all the normal precautions already in place and all) was finally brought under control by a) acquiring a fire ladder and actually testing it on the window I'd use to escape my bedroom at night and b) getting a fire extinguisher for my bedroom. At first I slept with it right next to my bed! Now it's been moved to a more dignified spot on the wall.

I have never had to use either one, but knowing they're there really reduces my anxiety level. As did adding an extra smoke detector in the basement. Which was already adequately covered, but it didn't FEEL like it to me. $20 for another smoke detector and my lizard brain is satisfied, I now believe all smoke will be rapidly detected.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:32 PM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Make sure you have fire extinguishers -- a small AB for the kitchen and a large ABC for the rest of the house.
posted by miyabo at 8:59 PM on December 15, 2015

rockindata: " Have a kitchen specific fire extinguisher(a white one)."

Get a large one. Those 1lb extinguishers are mostly useless; a 5lb is much better.

biogeo: "check to make sure the vent tubing is reasonably clean as well."

Install rigid piping if you can. If you can't use the shortest length of metal flex you can. Do not use the white plastic ducting.
posted by Mitheral at 9:01 PM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

You have a cat? Never have an open flame anywhere in the house that is unattended for even 10 seconds. That's it.

also fire extinguishers are good but really the firey danger zone is the cat. sorry cat.
posted by poffin boffin at 9:27 PM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

C02 extinguishers are amazing. Buy a big one. Chemicals are cool. But CO2 knocks out a fire.
posted by ihadapony at 9:41 PM on December 15, 2015

Put a sign at your front door that you have a cat. If you aren't home, the fire department at least knows kitty is in there. Unplug your small appliances with heating elements when not in use. Don't overload your plugs.
posted by cecic at 12:07 AM on December 16, 2015

Fire extinguisher in the kitchen. (Check their pressure gauges annually.)
Test your smoke detectors.
Make sure the smoke detectors are positioned well.
Make sure you also have CO detectors.
No open flames, no smoking in bed.
Careful with space heaters, halogen lamps, toasters, irons...
Consider the flammability of your clothes, couch, bed, etc. (There's a trade-off here, as fire retardants used in foam are apparently carcinogenic. But without them, well, polyurethane foam is, in my non-scientific understanding, basically made of oil.)

And then, yeah, there's everyone else's apartments. If you're asking this question, you're probably miles ahead of the downstairs neighbor who will accidentally leave a candle burning when they go to work. You might look into local requirements for multifamily structures (fire proofing between units, sprinklers, etc.) and see how your apartment building compares. At minimum, you could maybe partner with your landlord to have a smoke alarm / fire extinguisher inspection day.
posted by salvia at 12:23 AM on December 16, 2015

I've had a house fire, and I live in a row house. If I were you I'd focus on pressuring the landlord about these three things:

How often is the landlord cleaning the EXTERNAL dryer lint vents? (This is what caused my fire.) Your and your neighbors' dryers are vented to the outside of the building somewhere. They need to be cleaned once a year. If they're clogged, it's a huge fire hazard. It's not enough to simply clean the lint filter ON the dryer itself.

Has the landlord equipped every apartment with a fire extinguisher? Are there any in the hallways? Are they tested? How often?

ALL of your neighbors need very loud smoke detectors. Preferably hard-wired ones that can't be ripped off the wall in frustration during false alarms. My smoke detector woke me up and saved my life. I got out in time.

Bonus item: NEVER walk out of a room where a candle is burning. Hope that your neighbors don't either.

Also, get great renter's insurance.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 3:35 AM on December 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

I love scented candles, but I'm also terrified of fire, so instead of burning them I put them on candle warmers. Those are much safer, though you shouldn't leave those burning unattended, either. But candles on warmers can't start a fire the instant your back is turned, or the cat knocks them over, unlike an actual burning candle.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 3:44 AM on December 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh - and if you like holiday candles, Michael's and Target and so on sell battery powered versions of pillar candles and tea-lights, which look as cozy in holders or wreaths as candles do, but no fire hazard at all.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 3:45 AM on December 16, 2015

If there are only 6 units, could you get together with your neighbours to do some fire preparation thing?It might be a great way to get to know everyone, who is infirm, who has pets, plus at the same time you can get some safety thoughts into their heads too.

If you speak to the local fire department maybe someone could go around and identify hazards with you, or come give a ten min speech. You could sell it to them as something you heard about like, "hey neighbours, my nephews school had a fire safety day and the kids learned xyz and I thought it would be neat to do something like that for us too, always good to be prepared!". I'd be interested if one of my neighbours organised something like that.
posted by kitten magic at 4:57 AM on December 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh and don't deep fry stuff. Or if you do, be extremely careful. I saw a house burn down when a guy was frying chips (fries). He went to use the bathroom, came back and the kitchen was on fire, it got in the roof and the house was a goner. Poor guy, his wife was away and I don't know what was worse, telling her the house had burned down or telling her the house had burned down cause he was making chips (middle aged bloke, bit overweight, wasn't supposed to be part of his diet anymore. Poor bugger).
posted by kitten magic at 5:02 AM on December 16, 2015

In addition to all this advice, have a plan for what to do if there is a fire. Put your important papers in a fireproof box. Have a plan for what to grab, in what order, as you fly out the door. That kind of thing.
posted by adamrice at 7:59 AM on December 16, 2015

When you use candles, which use fire, use a sturdy candleholder, and put it on a plate, so if the glass breaks, there won't be a potential hazard. Do not leave candles or deep-fryer or other stuff unattended.

Have a fire extinguisher in the kitchen. Have working smoke and Carbon Monoxide alarms in the kitchen and either in the bedroom or the hallway near it. Do not smoke cigarettes.

Yes, check for loose or frayed wires on lamps and anything with a power cord. Old wiring may become brittle and crack or break, exposing the live wire inside, which is hazardous. It's very easy to re-wire lamps. If you have a fire and have ashes to dispose of, they must be completely cool, which can take several days. I have a covered metal container that rests on a metal surface outdoors for ashes. I have spread ashes on driveway ice and found live (tiny) coals when the ashes are 24 hours old, because I use a woodstove, and deep ashes insulate coals. Call your fire dept and ask if they do home visits.

Have a safety plan.

I understand and share your fear. Every time I read about life lost in a fire, which is increasingly rare, it involves a smoke alarm that was disabled or had dead batteries. Smoke alarms are well worth the annoyances.
posted by theora55 at 10:14 AM on December 16, 2015

Put a reminder in your calendar to test your smoke alarms monthly.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:59 PM on December 16, 2015

If you like the look of candles, look into modern fake/LED candles... They have ones with nice flickering effects that are housed in actual wax; they look exactly like a real candle from a few feet away.
posted by el io at 7:36 AM on December 21, 2015

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