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November 6, 2011

Posted by Abi Sutherland at 01:08 PM * 77 comments

Autumn is here. It’s the season of wood fires and heaters. Candles glow in pumpkins, on Thanksgiving tables, and anywhere we want to banish the darkness. Soon we’ll be setting up dead conifers in our houses and draping them with electric lights.

What does this all have in common? Why, fire, of course! Lovely phenomenon. Keeps us warm, cooks our food, lights things up with pretty colors, destroys our houses, kills us. Quite the versatile exothermic reaction.

This is much in my mind, not only for seasonal reasons, but also because I’ve recently done a fire safety and evacuation course. It’s part of becoming a Bedrijfshulpverlener (Workplace First Responder). Leaving aside how much fun the training was, it also made me stop avoiding the question of what the members of my household would do in a fire.

So today was the First Annual Sutherland Fire Drill and Firefighting Extravaganza.

First of all, I planned out a decision tree for each of the bedrooms in the house, then had the person who slept there walk through it. It’s rather like a Choose Your Own Adventure story, albeit with the fire in control:

  • You wake up because the smoke alarm is beeping. What do you do first?
  • Turn on the light.
  • OK. Then what?
  • Test the door temperature.
  • If the door is hot, what do you do?
  • Go out the window.
  • OK. If the door isn’t hot, what do you do?
  • Check for smoke outside the door.
  • If there’s smoke, what do you do?
  • Close the door and go out the window.
  • Right. If there isn’t smoke, then what?
  • Go into the hall and check my sister’s door.
  • What do you do if it’s hot?
  • (long pause) Leave it closed and go to your door.
  • Why? What’s the first rule of emergencies?
  • Don’t become a casualty yourself.
  • Right. Because then we have two people to worry about rather than one. What do you do at my door?
  • Test it to see if it’s hot.
  • (et cetera)

Note how most of the branches in the decision tree occurr at doorways. See, a door does two things in a fire. First of all, it masks what is on the other side. And second, it acts as a firebreak. Even the frailest hollow-core door can buy you precious seconds to get away.

So the key skill everyone acquired today was opening a door. You should learn it, too. Here’s what to do if you suspect there may be fire on the other side of a door:

  1. Test the temperature of the door.
    Run the backs of your hands across the top of the door and down the sides. If it’s not hot, check the handle, again with the back of your hand. (Why not the palm? Because if anything you touch is hot, you’re probably going to want to be using that hand to get yourself out of the room by the other exit. Having burned the palm will make that a substantially less enjoyable experience.)
    If the door is hot, don’t open it.
  2. Check for smoke outside.
    If the door opens toward you, kneel beside it with the knee away from the door. Open it against the still-planted near foot. Look up at the crack for a few seconds. If smoke is pouring in, close the door and go out your alternative exit.
    If the opens away from you, crouch down on the wall next to the doorframe (in other words, not next to the door) and open it a few inches. Again, watch the top of the opening for smoke. If you see any, then that’s a place you don’t want to go. Close the door and find another way.
  3. Only if there was no heat and no smoke should you open the door and go through.

Before you enter a space, check the door. When you leave a space, close the door behind you.

Martin and I didn’t try evacuating our room by the windows, but we ran the kids through the process of leaving through theirs. It wasn’t easy, since we all sleep one floor up (here’s a picture of the back of our house, where the children’s rooms are). One of the kids has a balcony, and can just climb over it and drop to the plastic storage chest beneath. But the other has to go out a window, across to the balcony railing, then hang and drop. Even with parental help, it’s a scary thing to do.

We’ve already discussed meeting points outside the house, and who stays put (children) versus who travels to find the family (adults).

Then we went into the backyard and learned about our household fire equipment.

We have three fire blankets in the house, one for each floor. Fire blankets are useful for smothering clothing fires and small, localized flames; they buy escape-and-call-the-fire-department time. We also have a foam fire extinguisher on the ground floor, suitable for type A (wood, paper, cloth, etc) and B (flammable liquids) fires. Because the foam is water-based, it is not suitable for grease fires. I’ve trained with a CO2 extinguisher and a fire blanket, but Martin had never used either.

I filled a bread loaf tin with kindling and used barbecue lighter fluid to set it on fire. We all practiced putting it out with a fire blanket: how to hold the blanket to protect our hands, using the blanket to protect our bodies while approaching the fire, and smothering the flames. Easy. I also demonstrated how to extinguish a fire with a newspaper, because although a fire blanket is useful, it is not the only way to remove oxygen from a fire.

The kids tried it too, though they know that they are not to try to fight fires themselves. (I would not have allowed less cautious or sensible children to try out the fire blankets, because a little learning can be a dangerous thing.)

Then I explained how to use a foam fire extinguisher on the re-ignited loaf pan. Martin tried it out with a second extinguisher bought for the purpose. It wasn’t as dramatic as my CO2 extinguisher training on the course, but it was useful nonetheless. Then we let the kids try squirting the rest of the foam out. (They are very clear on the idea that fire extinguishers are not toys and must not be let off without adult permission.)

We still have a few outstanding actions after today’s activities:

  1. Fit the bedrooms with CO/smoke alarms. They’re cheaper online, so we want to order them rather than buying them from the hardware store.
  2. Wall-mount the fire blankets
  3. Find out where to get the second foam extinguisher recharged. It will live in the attic with the tumble dryer afterwards.
  4. Put blankets, coats and spare shoes in the garden shed in case we have to evacuate in the winter

The chances that we will need to use anything we learned today are slight. But I’m glad we took the time to do it. Tonight, as a reward, we’re toasting marshmallows. Because rapid oxidation has its value in small doses, you know?

This post is for entertainment only. I am not a fire safety expert, and nothing in this post should be taken as definitive. Consult your local fire department for further information on fire safety, family fire drills, and the use of fire fighting equipment in the home.

Comments on Exothermica:
#1 ::: Sylvia ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 02:06 PM:

This is really useful. I've just gone through the post with my son which has brought up some useful discussion. It isn't something I've particularly thought about discussing before (other than that dropping out of a window and risking a broken limb can be much safer than trying to get downstairs and out of a house in a fire).

#2 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 02:39 PM:

I was really impressed by the MythBusters demonstration of why you really, really, really don't want to put water on an oil fire.

We all know that it's not a good idea, and have some idea of why, as of course did they. They were trying to show that you couldn't really get a 30ft fireball out of a deep-frying quantity of cooking oil. You can.

#3 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 03:12 PM:

I recommend buying the smoke alarms with a ten-year battery, if you can find them online.

#4 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 03:24 PM:

Good post, Abi.

Here's a video from an Auckland (New Zealand) fire department on cooking-oil fires.

For escape from upper stories, you might consider a metal fire ladder (e.g. the Kidde 13 foot or 25 foot ladder). Such things have rungs supported by chains, hooks to attach 'em to a window frame, and are small enough to store under a bed.

Your local fire fighters will know where to get fire extinguishers refilled. You might also consider a dry-chemical extinguisher or three (A-B-C fires).

#5 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 03:45 PM:

Jim @4:

We have very deep windowsills (29 centimeters on the inner side, about another 20 outside) and none of the fire ladders I've looked at will fit. I'm not happy about Fiona's traverse, but I think it's achievable, and her final drop is about 70 cm onto a yielding plastic box. Until I can find a better solution, it's our best guess.

I'm more worried about my drop, which is on the on the order of 150cm onto concrete, or somewhat less onto the hood of a car (depending on where it's parked). My first impulse is to throw my bedding out first, then hang and drop. Further consideration needed.

Regarding extinguisher types: my instructor (a fireman) recommended against powder extinguishers, because the particles they emit are likely to short out the electrics throughout your house within a year of use. "Your insurance will cover fire, but not replacing all of your electrical equipment."

I think the thinking is that you shouldn't be fighting fires where lives are at risk, so we're pretty much down to comparative property damages. But for whatever reason, the Dutch fire service no longer recommends powder extinguishers. I still have one in my car, but that's mostly because it's so low-value that any fire will total it, so my consideration is mostly for everything around it.

(Note to everyone: the fire classes Jim and I are discussing don't line up. His B contains my C, his C used to be E for us but is no longer classed separately, and his K is my F.)

#6 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 03:50 PM:

One more tip: one of the best ways to fight a pan fire is to put another pan on top of it (if it fits). Unlike a lid or a fire blanket, a pan has a nice long handle, keeping your arm away from the flames.

Put the pan, lid, or blanket on in such a way that the flames that come out as you bring it down are away from you. Then turn off the stove, turn off your fan, and call the fire department. Even if the pan is no longer flaming, it's going to take some time to cool. The nice people with the protective suits can take it somewhere less inconvenient to do that. They can also check that the grease in your extractor hood hasn't caught fire.

#7 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 04:32 PM:

My instructor, by the way, is the first bloke down the pole in this video. Apparently, this is what they do around the station house between callouts: make videos.

#8 ::: Laura Runkle ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 05:50 PM:

It's the time change in the US. If you have smoke/CO detectors, today is the day to change the batteries, whether they need it or not. Because you always want batteries of known freshness in there. It's also (not coincidentally) the day in our house to update the first-aid kits and review our family communication plans. Which have now taken a couple of changes, now that one of us is in another area code most days of the academic year, and we have one fewer radio amateur in our household most days of the year. The half-sized index cards with communications trees are *very* useful, and are stored in the lid of the altoids-tin first aid kits that have also been updated.

Thank you for the timely post. We haven't done a family drill since the kids got past EDITH take-homes from school.

#9 ::: Joris M ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 06:03 PM:

Even if not professional your safety tips seem sound.

I was taught in fire-exercises you always check with the back of your hand partly because reflex-movement works best that way.

Martin testing the extinguisher and the blanketing angle of attack to the fire correspond to what I was taught as well.

A few of the impressive examples we were shown in training were: why not to point the extinguisher directly at the fire, and: what can happen with pressurized vesicles (small camping gas cylinder) in a fire.

#10 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 07:21 PM:

So I've been highly annoyed by the placement of the smoke detectors in the house I bought this summer. Is it really necessary to have one right in the kitchen? It goes off every time I make popcorn or toast something in the big oven. Surly a less sensitive location, like in the entryway outside the kitchen, would give me as much protection?

#11 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 07:24 PM:

Oh, and it's a one-story house and I could open a window and push out a screen in any room but the bathroom; my only worry would be getting trapped in the backyard if the fire was in the carport, but I think I could scale the fence in an emergency.

#12 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 07:36 PM:

abi@5: Looking at the picture you posted of Fiona's drop, no way that's only 70 cm. (And a drop of 150 cm, for you, seems like it would be less than your own height.) Is the number off, or the unit...?

#13 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 08:06 PM:

Good for you, Abi!! Families should always have fire plans and run fire drills. Especially if they live in two-story houses. I've been a fire-safety geek for most of my life, and always ended up running the fire drills for the small alternative schools most of my kids attended. We made them adventures as well as equipment checks.

My kids are all grown up now, but we have a 4-year-old visiting regularly, so we've started again. The emergency response has to be appropriate to the child's age, so for now he's learning a) to stay in his room if he is in his room, and one of us will come for him, b) to go out the nearest safe door, if he's downstairs, c) not to stop to pick anything up, and d) to wait by the telephone pole at the corner until one of us or another adult comes to get him. Later we'll cover checking the doors to see if they can be opened, and other ways to leave his room. Sufficient unto the day is the complexity thereof.

#14 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 08:07 PM:

PS: can you *believe* that people used to put candles on conifers? Talk about your fireballs!

#15 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 08:13 PM:

I should have said: You can make your own escape ladder. It's not difficult. And you can attach it permanently inside the window that will be used, and roll it up behind a trunk or a bookcase and just leave it there. I did this when we lived in a house with 15 foot ceilings, where the second floor was very high up and there were no other options.

#16 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 08:23 PM:

Very useful. Thanks.

We have scissor-stairs in my building. If there's fire between me and my apartment door, I'm SOL (the windows open onto a four-story sheer drop). Fortunately the distance isn't large, so I can probably get through any likely fire without being burned too badly.

abi 7: My instructor, by the way, is the first bloke down the pole in this video.

Wow. He's certainly...well qualified. In several ways.

#17 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 09:51 PM:

Older (14): In my father's childhood, their family Christmas tree did catch fire one year. Fortunately, my grandfather was in the habit of leaving a bucket of water by the tree, so the fire was quickly put out, with minimal damage.

#18 ::: Lenore Jean Jones/jonesnori ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 09:54 PM:

Xopher @ 16 - can the skylight open? Or be made to open?

#19 ::: Lenore Jean Jones/jonesnori ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 09:57 PM:

I, of course, live in Xopher's building and also have scissor stairs. However, I'm on the second floor (that is to say, one higher than the ground floor, which is really up half a story already), and also have two exits from my apartment onto the two sets of stairs (Xopher's apartment has one door onto a hall which can lead to either set of stairs). So my escape plan is much easier. It's still a bit far to drop, but it's better than getting burned. Rescuing the cats would be much more difficult.

#20 ::: Laura Runkle ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 10:01 PM:

Older @14 - One of the family stories that's passed down is how my Uncle Gus finally won Nana's approval ten years after he married Aunt Ashley. Uncle George's new bride, fresh from Germany, wanted to put candles on the table-top Christmas tree. What she didn't know was that the tree was a week old, and hadn't been watered. Uncle Gus walked in the door just as the tree started to burn, and without hesitating, walked over to the tree, picked it up, kicked open the door that was beginning to swing closed, and tossed the tree into the snow. Family hero. He just shrugged and said, "I'm sure I could have done better if I'd only thought."

#21 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 10:05 PM:

Abi, this is a marvelous thing to do with your kids - and I'm so very glad you're doing it.

Our house burned down hot, fast, and completely, when I was eleven. It started in the wee hours, and I probably only lived because my little sister habitually slept with the covers pulled over her head, so she woke up. But a housefire, even a "little" housefire, is an experience that stays with you.

#22 ::: Laura Runkle ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 10:07 PM:

David @12 - I think that the distance from the soles of the feet to the lid of the plastic chest would be about 70 cm when she'd be hanging on the lower balcony railing, as illustrated.

#23 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 10:07 PM:

Lenore 18: Only in the sense that it could be replaced with one that opens. That would get me onto the roof of a burning building.

#24 ::: Velma ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2011, 10:12 PM:

We have several fire extinguishers in the house, and have been discussing our emergency plans, including where to meet on the block (there are heavy power lines on our side of the street, so we've decided the other side is better). Having been burned out of two apartment buildings in my life, I think about this often, and feel everyone should.

(Soren worried about having to go out the back way and around, but tested it and discovered that he can do it within two minutes. Not ideal, but it can be done.)

#25 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 01:22 AM:

Laura is correct: it's about 70 cm from the bottoms of Fiona's shoes when she's hanging from the balcony rail to the top of the blue plastic box.

#26 ::: Jordin ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 01:25 AM:

You can buy "Halotron" extinguishers, which are the halogen-ban-compliant replacement for halon extinguishers. They're expensive as all getout ($100 for 2.5 lb size, $150-200 for 5 lb) but they will not damage electronics, so if you have high-value computers, etc. they're worth considering.

#27 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 01:33 AM:

Janet Brennan Croft @ 10: So I've been highly annoyed by the placement of the smoke detectors in the house I bought this summer. Is it really necessary to have one right in the kitchen? It goes off every time I make popcorn or toast something in the big oven. Surly a less sensitive location, like in the entryway outside the kitchen, would give me as much protection?

It is wise to have a fire detector in the kitchen, but it doesn't need to be that smoke detector. They make different models, optimized to detect different types of smoke. The last time I bought detectors, I recall seeing several models, all by the same manufacturer, but one said it was best for kitchens. I just did some very brief googling, and didn't find anything definitive, but you might be able to make your life easier by changing out the model.

#28 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 02:07 AM:

Because I am curious: Why the caution when checking for smoke? It seems like you're going to considerable lengths to keep the door from opening all the way/keep yourself clear of the doorway. You've checked for heat, so the area immediately on the other side seems unlikely to be suddenly dangerous for that reason. This makes me suspect that there's another danger there which I haven't thought of/don't know about.

(I do remember being in a lab building when the emergency HVAC kicked in: I know how much force it took to open doors against negative pressure and I'm sure fires can have the same effect. Keeping a firm hold of the door so it doesn't fly open and leave you stuck with a room full of delicious, healthful smoke to breath makes sense, but it sounds like there's more to this.)

#29 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 02:32 AM:

Older #14: There is a reason my family has always had artificial trees. My dad always liked a good fire on Christmas and preferred it stay in the fireplace.

#30 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 03:26 AM:

Devin @28

Fire smoke can contain a lot of toxic stuff. Here in the UK, we've had regulations on the materials used in furnishing for a long time, but there's still stuff in homes which will make smoke that can kill you quick.

And opening a door can also let oxygen in to the fire--not good. Checking for a hot door is the primary check, catches the worst stuff, but if somebody has left a door ajar, you can have a space with a lot of smoke and not much heat.

#31 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 03:49 AM:

On the drop distances:

abi is talking about a 5-foot drop, in real money, and even onto concrete that's not a huge drop. But it's about the drop that broke my leg in '03. So I can understand the caution.

Get it right, you will be able to walk away from it. It helps that you're in control, choosing when to let go. Parachutists do this all the time, after all, and the effective height is rather more. Trouble is, the methods they use depend on landing on clear ground. You might land on the car safely enough, and then fall off--ouchies.

Even the right sort of rope, thick enough to grip easily, might make a difference, like fire ladders, you have to anchor it.

I think I'm just exploring the problem space here. I can see problems with all these ideas. Maybe the best answer would be another dustbin kept in the right place.

#32 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 08:45 AM:

There are at least two options for fire ladders with wide windowsills.

One is the contraption that I call a horse (it might have a more useful name). Think of a coffee table, with a very deep top and four firmly-attached, sturdy legs. It sits in the window, over the window-frame, two legs on each side. The fire ladder hooks to the bottom edge of the top, inside the window. This is a fairly heavy option.

The other is a permanent rail, inside and under the window. If you don't mind a permanently fixed bar under a window, this si the easier option.

I'm sure you thought of this, but it's important to go through the drill if the lights DON'T come on.

1) Another way to think of the horse; imagine a paper box, with legs sticking up in each corner. Flip it over the windowsill.

#33 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 11:37 AM:

Older @14

Given that the tradition of adding lights to Christmas trees began well before the invention of electric lights, what do you think they were going to use?

The year my family lived in Germany, we took advantage of the absence of laws against candles on conifers (plus the availability of the clip-on holders and appropriate candles in stores) and enjoyed actual burning candles on our Christmas tree. They were lit only for brief, well-supervised periods and there was an extinguisher right at hand. The effect was lovely and I have a framed photo of us with that tree. I think this is one of those "risk evaluation" things where the ultra-safe option is unnecessarily draconian.

Speaking of risk evaluation: When I was around 5 years old, my parents were visited by a fire alarm salesman. (This being the early '60s, the alarms in question were of the meltable fuse type.) He was a hard-sell guy who took the line that even waiting one day to consider buying his product created an unacceptable risk that your entire family would be burned to death that very night. I'm told I had nightmares for weeks. (We did get the alarms. Fortunately, they never got any use.)

#34 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 12:20 PM:

Heather Rose Jones (#33) Since you ask ... I would think candles set well back from the tree and a lot of reflective or brightly colored stuff on it.

I realize that in many cases candles were the only option -- that some people did not have reflective or brightly colored things to put on their trees. But your question presupposes that some kind of decorated tree was *necessary*; that people needed this *particular* expression of holiday spirit so much that they needed to invent a huge fire hazard to fill that need.

Candles in regular candle holders might be set all over the house for a festive appearance, and be a lot less dangerous.

I don't think avoiding candles on a drying conifer is "unnecessarily draconian". Rather, I wonder how such a dangerous practice ever began.

#35 ::: John M. Burt ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 12:32 PM:

I am currently writing a YA novel inspired by the Christmas Truce of 1914 (when small Christmas trees were distributed to the German trenches). I think I will add a line for a German soldier to say, something along the lines of, "It's pretty, but should it really be set up on an ammo box?"

#36 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 12:34 PM:

Devin @28: It's not just that the smoke may be toxic -- the reason you're opening the door only a little bit is because the rush of oxygen from your side of the door can be just enough to allow the fire to flash over -- and suddenly the fire is right there with you. Not good.

#37 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 01:06 PM:

Older @34

My impression is that the older rituals around setting up Christmas trees didn't involve quite such a long set-up time. I've read a number of works of fiction set in the late 19th/early 20th century that imply that the tree was brought in and set up on Christmas Eve and was intended primarily as a "day of" decoration rather than being intended to last for multiple weeks. So the hazards of a tinder-dry state may have been reduced. (On the other hand, note the fate of Hans Christian Andersen's fictional Christmas Tree ... but then, an awful lot of his protagonists met tragic ends.)

#38 ::: Linda Hafemeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 01:56 PM:

Older @34 & Heather @37:

My mother grew up in German Lutheran communities on the ND prairie during the late '20s-'30s. From her accounts, the Christmas tree went up on Christmas Eve and was only up to about Jan 6 (the "12 days of Christmas"). The tree was also freshly cut from a nearby location; it wasn't nearly as dry as what we get in urban areas today, cut goodness knows how long ago.

They used candles in clip-on holders, but they were only lit briefly and rarely, and watched carefully with water bucket at hand. When candles were lit on the sanctuary tree during the Christmas Eve church service (and I believe that was the only time they were lit), she tells about the two men who were detailed to spend the entire service doing nothing but watching the candles, ready to put out any spark.

These people were used to living with fire -- fireplaces, cooking & heating stoves, lanterns and more all had fires that had to be constantly fed, tended and monitored. They had plenty of experience with and a healthy respect for the damage fire could do, and still felt it worthwhile, with appropriate precautions, to light those candles.

#39 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 01:58 PM:

The components of live-fire-on-trees were: tree freshly cut, only up for a few days, in a pre-central-heating cold parlor - minimizing how much it would dry out - and the candles flaming only under direct supervision.

Also, the typical Victorian-era trees were much more rangy, so not many branches overhanging others.

#40 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 02:29 PM:

Older 34: I don't think avoiding candles on a drying conifer is "unnecessarily draconian". Rather, I wonder how such a dangerous practice ever began.

Well...realize that the decorating of evergreens was adopted by Christians from an earlier Pagan custom for Yule, when the evergreen is honored on the longest night of the year for its promise that light (and the deciduous greenery) will return. A couple of things about that: some may have actually believed that the sun would not return if they didn't do the actual rituals, and it's much less dangerous done with a living tree out in the snow. Both snow and a living, healthy tree reduce the fire hazard greatly.

There are still places where at Christmas someone wears a crown of holly with lit candles in it. Can't remember where, though memory says Scandinavia somewhere. Women, with long blond hair.

#41 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 02:31 PM:

The bulbs on old style Christmas light strings can get pretty hot, too. (The newer tiny and/or LED bulbs, not so much.) My father, with his childhood tree fire in mind, was always very careful about bulb placement: bulb touching needles was absolutely verboten. He carefully bought sparser trees than many and would remove needles if necessary.

#42 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 02:39 PM:

Xopher @40:
There are still places where at Christmas someone wears a crown of holly with lit candles in it. Can't remember where, though memory says Scandinavia somewhere. Women, with long blond hair.

Not Christmas, but St Lucy's Day, in Sweden.

#43 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 02:40 PM:

Ah! I knew something was wrong with that, but couldn't put my finger on it. Thank you!

#44 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 03:16 PM:

Re trees and lights -- even electric lights can be a fire hazard on a dried-out tree. (Less so with the new LED bulbs, but even those can put out significant heat.) When my parents had a cut tree, it was always set up in a tree-stand that had a water pot for the end of the trunk to go into; this kept the tree from drying out and reduced the risk significantly. But we also never went to bed leaving the tree lights on. And as soon as artificial trees became affordable, my parents bought one because it was less of a fire risk. I have always had artificial trees, partly for that reason and partly because I consider buying a cut tree every year to be wasteful conspicuous consumption.*

And yes, prior to the invention of electric lights, candles were used because that was what was available. We should not judge pre-electric cultures by our own standards.

* I recall reading a magazine interview with Danielle Steele, some 30 years ago, in which she said that every year she had a 30-foot cut tree installed in the vaulted foyer of her 3-story house. I was appalled, and vowed never to buy a cut tree, not even the little 5-foot ones from the tree farm; it made me realize that doing so was a difference only in degree.

#45 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 03:26 PM:

One of my grandmother's stories of her childhood featured the Christmas tree at church, circa 1900. There were small toys for the children on the branches, interspersed with candles; larger toys underneath. One year, there was a fire. I don't recall hearing about anyone getting injured, and the church did not burn down, but sixty years later she still mourned the loss of the toys.

#46 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 03:30 PM:

With respect to trees, my parents used to buy live trees (with root ball) and then plant them after the holidays. There are several trees around their house from those days.

I decorate one of my larger plants, a legacy from my Ex, with lights and call it my Hannukah Bush.

#47 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 04:30 PM:

Lee (44): We also had the base of the tree in water (and were careful to keep it refilled as needed). And our rule was that the lights had to be off whenever the tree was unattended--not just overnight, but any time there was no one in the room.

Dad rescued an artificial tree out of a trash pile one summer ~30 years ago, and since then they've alternated between that and a live (cut) tree.

#48 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 05:12 PM:

A quick Google also produces this fire ladder. One would, of course, need to be able to afix something to the wall. (I wonder if you could position it such that it's accessible from the balcony as well as the other window.

#49 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 06:45 PM:

abi @ 42: You know, Saint Lucy--with her eyes on a little tray.

#50 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 07:08 PM:


Based on the test Mythbusters did a few years ago, the problem isn't the heat of the lights, the problem is that a dry tree can catch fire very readily if something generates a spark.

#51 ::: Singing Wren ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 08:23 PM:

Ginger @ 46:

When I was younger, my parents would always buy the live trees for our Christmas tree*. The tree would be brought into the house between the 20th and the 23rd, and be planted by Epiphany (mostly depending on weather, and also on who was off from school/work on what days). This tradition continued until my brother went away to grad school, and was no longer home to handle planting duties. That year, my parents bought an artificial tree.

To this day, having a dead (cut) tree for Christmas still seems wrong.

My current tree is artificial, and pre-lit, because I don't like dealing with strings of lights.

*Dad was very excited when he discovered the nursery would deliver, as it meant he didn't have to figure out how to get the tree a) loaded, b) home, and c) unloaded.

#52 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 08:49 PM:

My father bought some generic fire ladders and hitched them to our beds, by the nearest window. He bought a chain-link-bar ladder that may have been easily variable in length. this was to get out of a two-story house when we lived out in the country and far away from any fire fighters. My sister and my bedrooms were on the second floor.

if I had the balcony arrangement, I'd probably just place and affix a ladder and protect it with a box/tarp-bag as a permanent installation. And train to use it.

#53 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 09:17 PM:

We had live trees most of the time when I was young (one of them was still living a year or so back, having been planted permanently about 1980). They came in on the 23rd or 24th, were decorated (mostly teeny glass ornaments), then went back outside about the 26th. (They lived in pots. One of them was a dwarf spruce - decorating it was not easy.)

I also heard stories from my mother about her maternal grandparents' trees, which were set up in their parlor and only revealed to the children on Christmas morning, or possibly on Christmas Eve.

#54 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 11:27 PM:

I stayed in a hotel once with very old fire extinguishers - glass balls filled with carbon tetrachloride. The feature was that a fire would break them, or you could throw them at the fire. I believe that there were some less-retro devices around, also. I can't imagine that the products of that reaction would be anything but plain nasty.
I've also done sprinkler training - a very wet experience. We had a training frame with three sprinkler heads (hooked to a fire hydrant) - 120 gallons per minute of water to to be shut off or redirected. One with a commercial stopper, one with a wood wedge, and the third we rigged a tarp to divert the stream. Change of clothes mandatory even with turn-out coats, sunny day preferred.
There are people agitating for mandatory domestic sprinklers here in Ottawa. I'm unsure - a sprinkler can do a lot of secondary damage. Sprinklers go off more often from impact - often with a ladder - than from fires.
And we all know that only in Hollywood do all the sprinklers dump at once. In the real world, only the one head that's hot enough to melt the fusible link triggers. That's plenty!
A paramedic acquaintance points out that the bedroom closet is a good place to hang the fire extinguisher - you don't want the fire between you and the extinguisher.

#55 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2011, 11:50 PM:

Oh, I don't remember the name of the type of fire extinguishers used in kitchens over the grill, but we had one go off one year at summer camp. Thankfully, it was the night of the week we didn't have Scouts, so the maintenance guy who set it off* got to clean the grill and floor without the need to have it clear to feed three hundred people, just a dozen.

*Who had, in fact, been a German soldier in WWII and a POW in Russia and who said that America was the best thing that ever happened to him. I just find it immeasurably odd that I once worked with a former Nazi.

#56 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2011, 07:47 AM:

I must say that the family fire drill has aspects of both charm and good sense.

If there's a fire in my house, I'm going through the window (I live in a 'ranch-style' dwelling, my bedroom window is two feet from the ground) if the door is impassable) after making sure that Gail can make it through.

#57 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2011, 08:01 AM:

I don't think I've seen it mentioned properly here, and Henry #54 reminded me - if I recall my training correctly and experience of the somewhat dangerous place I used to work, the fire extinguisher should be placed either at the exit, so that you don't go into any danger for it, or near the expected hazard, e.g. in the case of an oil fire in the kitchen, by the door as far away from the cooker as possible. Not beside the cooker on the opposite side from the door.

As far as I can tell, the main use for a car carried powder extinguisher is to be used through a slight gap in the bonnet or side of car, in order to extinguish the fire before you lose the entire car along with everything inside it, not to mention the damage to the road and danger to passing traffic if the fire gets out of control.

Of course I carry mine to events where I'm running the bronze casting or alchemy furnaces. Very unlikely to be used, the bucket of water or sand is more practical, but it helps keep people happy.

A family fire drill is a good idea, I must mention it to my sister.

#58 ::: Cygnet ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2011, 08:59 AM:

Guthrie @ 57 -- I worked at an airport parking lot in the early 90's that had a couple car fires and fire extinguishers were never really all that effective for gas-fueled fires. I used one quite successfully on a random car that pulled off the street in with a flaming pack rat nest under the hood, however.

For a gas fueled car fire, however, what an extinguisher can do is buy you precious seconds to beat the flames back and grab someone out of a burning vehicle -- a baby in the back seat, an injured driver, that kind of thing. It may be somebody else's car you use it on, but it can save lives.

On the topic of household fires -- if you live in wild fire prone areas, add "look out the window and see if the problem is outside" to your checklist. I've had my fire alarm go off because of a wild fire before. Your survival response is going to be quite different if there's a wall of flames headed your way, fueled by 30mph winds ...

#59 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2011, 11:50 AM:

Singing Wren @51: Last time I did a Google Street View driveby of the house I grew up in, I was pleased to observe the top of a blue spruce visible behind the roof of the house. Unless I miss my guess, that was our 1976 Chrismas tree.

#60 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2011, 02:37 PM:

If you haven't done so, click to abi's site and run through the photos.

The images, particularly of the kids checking the door and kneeling by it, have burned into my brain so thoroughly that should I ever need to practice these techniques, they'll be readily to (back of) hand.

#61 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2011, 11:47 PM:

The local volunteer fire department here has open houses every year, where you can meet the people and climb all over the equipment. (and accidentally trigger the horn while still indoors). One thing that I greatly appreciate from that is that they usually have a propane burner thingy that they use to train people to use fire extinguishers. It's about a foot and a half across, and filled with water and has propane bubbling through, so it turns into an irregular cauldron of fire. And then they show people how to put it out with one of a few fire extinguishers.

Also, my middle kid has been having worries and nightmares about fires, so we've been going over the list of things to do. For him, it's wake up your brother (bunk beds, and big brother would sleep through just about anything), and check the door for heat. If it's warm at all, go out the window and meet at the fish pond. In their case, the window is only a couple feet off the ground, so it's really a prime exit for them. Not to mention that they've already brken out the screen going out the window for fun, without even considering the whole fire issue.

#62 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2011, 11:56 PM:

Annual fire/emergency training at work. Along with annual driver ed class. After the second or third time through, it doesn't really disappear afterward.

#63 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2011, 01:11 PM:

Abi, a really good post - and great training you're giving your children. Nobody ever taught us that sort of stuff.

Maybe we ought to get a third fire extinguisher.

When we had our loft conversion done, we had to have all the doors onto the escape route (stairs, (i.e. all doors opening onto the landings and hall) fire-resistant. Thankfully, for the two large old (1920s) dining room & sitting room doors they let us buy converter kits to fireproof the panels rather than replace them. Interestingly, that having been done, there was no requirement for a low-level escape window on the top floor. Maybe we should add "escape ladder" to our Christmas presents lists again.

#64 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2011, 11:19 PM:

Also a good idea to know how often your fire extinguishers need to be renewed/replaced. The cheapies from the home improvement store only last a year or two (and should be turned and shaken every few months) while the bigger fellows need to be recharged at a fire station. There's public information on how to get your extinguisher up to full strength.

#65 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2011, 04:24 PM:

We're doomed. I wish I were entirely joking, but this is a tall 2 storey with pretty much nothing under the majority of windows (The window in the nursery-to-be, as it happens, is the only one with a place to stand/hang from right outside. Not part of our consideration of which room would become said nursery, but now I realise it, quite a good thing.)

We also don't habitually close doors, which might be good for not needing to worry about causing a fire to flash up by attempting to leave a room, or bad from the smoke perspective. (This may change with the nursery. It depends on several not well-known factors - how hot the room gets when closed up - now that there *isn't* a computer in and usually on therein - and whether we need to keep cats away from the crib, or whether they behave.)

My best exit from our master bedroom, though, is grab the towel hanging on the door for smoke protection (And/or to wrap the baby or an inclined-to-panic cat in), scoot 15 feet down the hall, make a 180-degree turn to go down the stairs, and straight out the front door (If one can use the stairs at all, one can get outside, at least).

What to do if one can't get out of the master bedroom seems to be close the bedroom door, jam same towel under said door, crank open a window, and throw hampers of clothes outside until there's some hope of not breaking self and/or animals in a rather long drop. None of these are ideally fast.

I'm thinking a fire ladder might not be a bad investment...

The study and pottery rooms are worse, but at least they're places where one tends to be awake and thus have more warning time.

This is making me more inclined to sleep in the nursery than ever.

#66 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2011, 12:13 AM:

I had friends who went to Swarthmore College, and were living in an old firetrap of a dorm. Even back when it was a women-only dorm with paternalistic policies about no men allowed in the dorm, the rules had an exception for fire drills - making sure everybody got out in case it was a real fire was far more important than protecting propriety. My friends kept a climbing rope next to the radiator, figuring that was a lot safer than hoping the staircase wouldn't be on fire.

#67 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2011, 01:59 AM:

I've been transcribing a 1946 letter from my mother's mother to some family friends, and this paragraph seemed relevant here:

I am so sorry about Inqy and his burns and the lack of fire insurance. You know, I think you (I mean me) or rather one doesn’t think much about fire insurance until one has had a fire. After Evy nearly set the whole house afire with our wash (put under the heater in the laundry), I went to town on fire insurance and fire-fighting gadgets. Little Stanleigh almost made a fine, new, chimney fire when he burned up the packaging of the fire extinguishers in the living room fire-place. He had to use one to put it out. I think that you will agree that this is quite funny?

Evy and Little Stanleigh were siblings of my mother, both dead now. No idea who Inqy is -- possibly a pet.

#68 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2011, 11:16 PM:

guthrie at #57 - the usual use for a car fire extinguisher is someone else's car fire. It's the only time I used one for real.

I was fueling up, at a now vanished station that also rented cars. A mechanic was working on one of the cars with a siphon hose and suddenly there were flames all over the top of the engine block. He jumped back, and kicked the lid of the gas station filler back on - he'd been draining fuel injectors back into the underground tank.

I saw something straight out of the training films - two guys arguing over how to use the extinguisher. So I opened the trunk, grabbed mine, walked over, pulled the pin, point at the front, sweep, fire goes right out, just like in training. I did forget to test the extinguisher first, though. It took very little to put out that fire, in the early stage.

I think it cost me about $10 then (a number of years ago) to refill the extinguisher - at a commercial dealer, not a fire station.

#70 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2011, 10:21 AM:

Another good video on fires, from NIST. Note how quickly the room is involved when the fire starts in the dry pine tree versus the couch.

#71 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2011, 12:24 AM:

I was told in a blacksmithing class that you check for hot metal with the back of your hand because, in case of a really bad burn, your tendons will contract such that your hand will curl around the extremely hot metal. Not that the other reasons are bad, just another lesson-and-explanation.

#73 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2011, 09:24 PM:

There was another turkey-fryer PSA this year, narrated by William Shatner for State Farm. I didn't see it, but CBC radio ran the audio part. Links seem to abound, including this one.

I've used a "turkey fryer", but only as a sausage boiler. Deep frying makes me nervous. Deep frying with multiple gallons of hot oil strikes me as something to be left to professionals.

#74 ::: Angiportus ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2011, 09:22 PM:

I hope this is not too late, nor too tangential, but flames aren't the only hot thing that can do a number on you. I am referring to steam.
Last night I was making a big kettle of stew and it was in the simmering stage. I had gripped both [insulated] handles to move it to another burner, and the lid slipped sideways all of a sudden. That lid weighs less than a pound I am sure but the pressure and temp. of the suddenly-freed gas was enough to burn a couple square inches on the outside of my thumb. It was a couple of hours with an icepack and some aloe gel before I was a happy camper again. From here on out I use mitties/hotpads.
Water in a gaseous state is something one doesn't want out of control.

#75 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2011, 10:03 PM:

Angiportus #74: Oh, yeah!

For purposes of comparison: Under everyday conditions, heating water from just-melted to just-about-to-boil (0°C to 100°C) takes 100 calories per gram -- that is, the hot water contains that much more heat energy. If the hot water hits your skin, it dumps around two-thirds of that energy into your skin (trying to equalize with a tad under 37°C), and that will hurt you pretty badly.

Converting that 100° water to steam (still at 100°C) involves pumping in 540 calories per gram. So if that steam hits your skin, it's trying to dump about ten times as much energy per mass... into your poor skin.

There are ameliorating factors (not as much of the steam is touching you at once, and once it gets a chance to expand it cools quickly), but even so, fresh steam carries a heck of a punch.

#76 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2011, 10:05 PM:

PS: I was assuming above that the amount of water or steam is "much smaller" than the part of you it hits. Large amounts are that much worse....

#77 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2011, 10:21 PM:

Whoops, never mind my #76; the balance actually goes the other way -- amounts large enough to actually raise your temperature would lose a tad off the energy-dumped-per-mass numbers.

Theoretically that would add hyperthermia on top of your third-degree scalds, but hey, you're probably going into shock anyway....

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