Remember, in the case of an actual fire call 911 immediately.
Let’s face it—fire is hazardous. We pay our firefighters good money for the training they undergo to face this extreme hazard and for the extreme risks they take when confronting it, and for good reason: fire suppression is difficult and dangerous.
That being said, in a disaster, firefighters and other emergency personnel may not be able to immediately respond to fires, possibly even for days. Therefore it is critical to know what you, as an average citizen, can and can’t safely do when it comes to fire. Use our tip-sheet on Basic Fire Safety & Suppression [PDF, 188Kb] to learn some basic facts about fire as well as valuable safety tips that just might save your life.
When it comes to fire, safety is paramount. If the fire is too big for you to safely put out with water or a fire extinguisher, GET OUT and let the firefighters handle it, even if it means having to let the building burn down. Remember, possessions and buildings can be replaced, but you can't.
If you have a fire extinguisher available and know how to use it, and the fire is small enough for you to be able to put it out safely, do so (see our page on Fire Extinguishers for more information). If you don't have a fire extinguisher but do have a garden hose or buckets and a large water source such as a pool, you can use that instead depending on the circumstances.
Water is a good tool when putting out fires, but not all fires can be extinguished by water, and some may actually spread. Remember, water is only appropriate for Class A fires (ordinary combustibles such as wood, paper, cloth, some plastics and rubbers, etc.); gases and oils such as propane and gasoline will float to the surface of the water and continue to burn, and electrically energized items may transmit electricity up the water stream directly to you and cause serious injury or even death.
ALWAYS keep yourself between the fire and a safe exit - fire is unpredictable and can grow exponentially in a matter of seconds, so you need to be able to escape.
The fire triangle
Fire needs three things to burn: fuel, oxygen, and heat, also known as the "fire triangle." Take away one of the sides, and the triangle collapses. If a gas or propane tank leak is the source of your fire's fuel, shut off the valve to remove the fuel before beginning active suppression efforts. If a fire starts in a pan on the stove but hasn't yet moved outside the pan, put a lid on it to remove the oxygen. If you can't take away the fuel or the oxygen, you may be able to remove the heat by soaking the fuel source with water (remember the limitations though).
When using water to put out a fire, keep in mind that the idea is to soak the fuel source thoroughly, thereby dropping the temperature and putting the fire out. If you're using a garden hose, turn the spigot all the way open, aim the hose at the base of the fire, and sweep back and forth to soak the entire fuel source. If you need to, you can put your thumb over the end of the hose to increase the water pressure, spread the water out over a wider area, and reach the fire from a longer distance.
If you use buckets, get a "bucket brigade" going: using as many people and buckets as you have available, form a line between the fire and your water source and pass full buckets forward toward the fire and empty buckets back to the water. The more buckets and people you have, the better your chances will be (you can even form multiple lines if you have enough); fire can and does cause water to boil and turn into steam, so you need to be able to soak the fuel source quickly. For the same reason, you need a water source that can fill buckets quickly, such as a pool, creek, water trough, etc. The kitchen or bathtub faucet will take far too long to fill each bucket, and your fire will quickly spread out of control.
During a disaster
Sometimes during disasters we, as average citizens, are required to take action that is normally reserved for emergency personnel. Suppression of a fire bigger than a trashcan or a pot on the stove (small scale) is one such example. When dealing with a moderate to large scale fire, ask yourself the following questions:
• Is this fire something that I can reasonably control with the help of those around me?
• Is the fire fueled by something other than a gas or propane leak (where the valve can't be shut off)?
• Can I fight this fire from outside the building?
• Will the safety of others remain intact while I fight this fire?
If the answer to any of these questions is NO, then you likely cannot safely control or extinguish the fire, and should get yourself and everyone else away as quickly and safely as possible.
If the fire is the result of a gas leak, shut off the gas (if you can) and evacuate the building. Shut every door on your way out to create containment zones, which will help slow or limit the fire's spread.
ABSOLUTELY NEVER enter a burning building to save pets or property. Animals are "pre-programmed" to find their way out of danger, including fire, and property can be replaced. You, however, can't.
Remember that sometimes, in order to do the greatest good and save the most lives and property, you'll have to let a fire burn and instead focus on protecting the surrounding areas, such as soaking the houses on either side of a fully-engulfed house. If you can't put out the fire, you may be able to at least limit its spread.
Above all else, stay calm. Take a moment to think before you act, so that you don't make a rash decision and realize it too late. Excitement during a disaster is normal, and compounded with the excitement of an active fire, dangerous and deadly decisions can be made, so it's important to think first - don't rush into fighting a fire only to find out that it's already too big for you to handle. You don't want to get trapped by an out-of-control fire and end up having your name added to the list of victims.
For more information, visit the following websites (links will open in a new window):
Emergency Survival Program
National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), Safety Information for Consumers
United States Fire Administration (USFA) - Home Fire Prevention: