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Make your home more fire-ready

September 02, 2009|DAVID LAZARUS

When my mom's house in San Francisco burned down a few years ago, I learned that if the flames don't destroy all your stuff, the water from firefighters' hoses will finish the job.

I also learned that it pays to be prepared -- a lesson that's especially timely in light of the blazes now raging in Southern California. So today we'll look at some ways to make your home more fire-ready.

"People always think that a fire won't happen to them," said Richard Hedrick of Hedrick Fire Protection, an Anaheim fire-safety consulting service. "But you never know. You don't want to take chances."

He and other experts say your priority is to save lives. That might sound like a no-brainer, but more than a few people have been trapped by flames because they were focused instead on protecting their possessions.

It shouldn't even be an issue. Get your family members and other occupants out of harm's way first. Then worry about your gear.

Make sure everyone knows escape routes and practices evacuations. It's especially vital that kids know what to do. Here's a rule of thumb: When in doubt, get out.

If your home is threatened by a wildfire, always follow instructions from emergency crews to exit the scene quickly and safely.

More info on preparing your family for the worst can be obtained at the "parents & teachers" section of Federal Emergency Management Agency's FEMA for Kids website.

Some equipment no home should be without: smoke detectors and at least one fire extinguisher in the kitchen. And if you're not within easy reach of the ground, some sort of rope or fire ladder.

Hedrick advises getting at least a five-pound extinguisher rather than 2 1/2 -pound jobs, which may not be sufficient to douse an electrical or kitchen fire.

Also, know how it works.

"I'm amazed at the number of people who don't know you have to pull the pin first," Hedrick said. "Pull the pin, then point and squeeze."

Always aim for the base of the flames. "Otherwise, the chemical shoots right through the top," Hedrick said. "It doesn't smother the fire. And make sure you use the whole thing to be safe."

Smoke detectors aren't just a smart idea, they're the law. Change the batteries at least once a year (you might want to pick an easy-to-remember date, like Jan. 1). And keep them free of dust, which can mess up their performance.

The fire at my mom's place was started by workers repairing the roof of the house next door. One errant spark was all it took.

After firefighters had things under control -- and how can anyone say enough about these amazing men and women? -- my family was permitted to go inside and salvage what we could. There wasn't much left.

"The most devastating part of a fire isn't losing your furnishings," said Robert Rowe, a former deputy fire marshal who now runs Pyrocop Inc., a Long Beach fire-safety consulting firm. "It's the photographs and documents."

He's right. More than anything, I regret the loss of our family photos. Whole chunks of my childhood are gone.

Rowe recommends storing photos and important documents like birth certificates in a fireproof safe or file box. It can be easily tucked away on the floor of your closet (heat rises; lower is better).

This isn't a guarantee that your pics and documents will come through unscathed, but it greatly improves the odds.

And it doesn't have to be a wallet-emptying purchase. Target sells a fireproof file box for about $100, while Wal-Mart sells a number of fireproof safes for under $200.

Alternatively, Rowe suggests creating a "doomsday box" containing all your important files and paperwork that can be grabbed quickly during an evacuation. Obviously you'd want to keep it in an easily accessible location and make sure it's light enough to be portable.

Many of us store our lives electronically on our computers. Rowe strongly encourages computer users to back up files onto an external hard drive that can be grabbed quickly if you have to flee your home.

It also doesn't hurt to store your digital photos online with an online service like Shutterfly, Flickr or Snapfish.

Some, like Kodak Gallery, require you to buy a certain number of prints annually to keep your account from being deleted. Make sure you always read the fine print before entrusting your precious memories to a stranger.

Remember, too, that your cellphone might not make it. Keep a list of important numbers in your safe or doomsday box.

I'd never want to suggest that your home insurer wouldn't be there for you every step of the way, but, well, here's another area where it's better to be safe than sorry.

"The larger your loss, the bigger the headaches," said Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, an advocacy group.

"If I've heard it once I've heard it a thousand times: A person has been promised full coverage, but then, when the rubber meets the road, they don't have it."

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