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NUTS & BOLTS

Reduce Risks of Fire and Be Prepared Anyway--Then Sleep a Little Easier

March 27, 1993|PATRICK MOTT

It's possible to gauge how tough the world is by totting up a list of the conditions that must exist for you to sleep better at night.

In more innocent days all you needed was good health, good friends, a little money in the bank and the knowledge that you had said your prayers sincerely. You could list it all on a stamp.

With age, however, comes a menu of adult-size horrors that stretches out the door and across the street. It is there that we first meet male pattern baldness, the IRS, variable rate mortgages, office pecking orders and the concept of overtime.

Facing a sleepless night, it can be argued that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing (you could do without knowing that the earth will eventually crash into the sun, right?), but still there is one demon that belongs on everybody's list, and solid knowledge of it is absolutely mandatory: home fire danger.

While a fire in your home is one of the most devastating things that can happen, it's also one of the easiest to avoid. Common sense will solve many problems, but a periodic review of common mistakes never hurts.

The kitchen

Most home fires in Orange County--about one-fourth of the total--start here, said Orange County Fire Department spokeswoman Kathleen Cha.

With the concentration of electrical appliances and the use of flame (if the kitchen uses gas), the danger is multiplied. Foods left on burners and forgotten, the use of too high a flame and burners left on under empty pans are often to blame, as are too many electrical appliances on one electrical circuit and ashtrays with still-smoldering ashes dumped into wastebaskets.

Kitchen fires, said Cha, can be fought. A pan fire can be extinguished by covering the pan with a lid or smothering the fire with baking soda. Larger fires, such as one in a wastebasket, can be put out with a fire extinguisher (the best, Cha said, is a multipurpose unit, designated "ABC").

However, she said, "a fire extinguisher is a tool, not a cure-all. It's for a small fire. If the fire is big enough that it frightens you--if you feel like it might easily get out of control--don't try to fight it. Shut the door on it."

Then, she said, get out of the house and call 911 from a neighbor's phone.

Electrical fires

These are the next most common type of home fire in the county, Cha said. Worn or frayed wires often are the culprits, as are cords that are run under carpets. These can become frayed over time after being stepped on day after day. Overuse of extension cords and overloading of electrical outlets is also dangerous.

All these electrical sins can have the same result: a short circuit, which produces heat that can eventually cause a fire to ignite, particularly if there are combustible materials around the site of the short.

Heating

In colder climates, fireplaces, heaters and forced air heating systems are responsible for more home fires than any other cause. And in Southern California, heating-related home fires increase dramatically during cold weather, Cha said.

Fireplaces should never be used without a screen, she said, and spark arresters should be fitted over the chimney (in some county locations, particularly in heavily wooded areas, spark arresters are required by law).

Paper, trash and wood that contains a great deal of sap (such as a Christmas tree) should not be burned in the fireplace because they tend to burn hotter and more explosively than conventional dry wood. Also, Cha said, creosote buildup in the chimney can cause an excessive amount of heat to be transferred to the surrounding structure. "If you don't remember the last time you had your chimney cleaned," she said, "then you probably need to have it done."

Space heaters--small, portable heaters that can be moved from room to room--cause several fires each year in the county simply by overheating nearby combustible materials, Cha said. "People forget that heat will cause fires," she said. These heaters should be placed well away from curtains, bed linens and other flammable items.

Even forced air heaters are vulnerable to fire danger because of dust buildup in the filter. The dust can be ignited even by a pilot light, Cha said, so it's a good idea to change the filter every year the heater is in use.

Clutter

Oily rags should be stored in a ventilated area away from heat sources such as pilot lights. Trash, grass and leaves, newspapers and magazines and other combustibles should not be allowed to pile up. And, Cha said, combustible material should never be stored under stairways or in hallways. If it ignites, exits may be blocked.

Getting out

"People think, 'It's my house; I'll know how to get out in a fire.' But they won't," Cha said. A fire often consumes clear thinking as well as furniture. So decide on an escape plan, with primary and secondary escape routes and exits, and practice with your family. "If you practice," Cha said, "the knowledge kicks in automatically when you need it."

Valuables

The rule is ironclad: Never go back into a burning house--or linger inside--to look for valuables. In its "Home Fire Survival Kit," the Sentry Group, maker of safes and fire security chests, suggests taking a complete inventory of household goods, investments and important contacts and phone numbers and addresses and locking them--along with other vital documents such as insurance papers--in a storage container classified as fireproof by Underwriters Laboratories.

The kit, which offers many fire prevention tips and includes and extensive home inventory list, is available free by writing to the Sentry Group at 900 Linden Ave., Rochester, N.Y., 14625, or by calling 1-(800) 828-1438.

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