Fire –we’re both fascinated and terrified by it. So we install smoke detectors in our homes and businesses, consider exit routes, and talk to our kids about fire safety. We learn to stop, drop and roll. But the truth? Most of us don’t know all that much about how fire actually works and behaves. And by knowing more, we can be more prepared if we come in contact with it. Here are a few common misconceptions about fire and the truth behind them, from someone who knows fire – Brock Schmitt, captain of the Galesburg Fire Department and lead fire investigator.
Solid surfaces catch fire.
Did you know that solids and liquids don’t burn? You may be confused – after all, fire destroys lots of solids. In truth, only gas burns – but you can get a solid hot enough to give off vapors that ignite. “We think of fire as burning,” says Brock. “But we need to think of it as a chemical reaction.” Fire is fire. The way fire behaves can look totally different every single time. It can depend on what the room is made of, how full the room is and more. But there is one thing that fire always does. In addition to fire being a chemical reaction, it also always seeks an area of lower pressure. So it goes up and out.And as the fire continues to grow, it can reach flashover – as Brock describes, this is when it transitions from a fire in a room to a room on fire.
The damage after a fire is mostly the result of the fire itself.
It is almost impossible to contain the effects of a fire. Not only does fire spread up and out, it also brings smoke damage with it. This can include visual residue and odors (which is why contents cleaning is so important). “Everything is contaminated after a fire,” says Brock. That means fire, smoke and water damage from fighting the fire. And it’s not just limited to the main location of the fire. It spreads quickly through the air and can end up in the most unlikely places (like inside drawers or cabinets).
There’s no easy way to inventory your home and belongings.
You may have been advised to catalog your home and property in case of an emergency. (It could be a part of your family’s emergency planning.) It helps you know what needs replaced as well as assessing value. But this is something few people actually do. Who has time to sit down and set up a system to catalog everything you own? It’s exhausting to think about! But, new technology makes this much easier. Try snapping a short video of your home and property on your smart phone. In just a few minutes, you’ll have a record of almost everything inside.
Today’s homes are designed to be safer in case of a fire.
We’d like to believe that today’s homes and furnishings make them safer. We’ve heard about flame-retardant materials and technology and assume they help us stay safe. But the truth is that our belongings and homes today are much more susceptible to fire and flashover than those 30 or more years ago. That’s simply because today, many materials are made of man-made and petroleum based products which means fires are actually more dangerous and spread even faster. For example, in one controlled burn, flashover (room on fire) happened at just less than four minutes in a home furnished with modern furnishings. It took nearly 35 minutes for the room with legacy furnishings. (See the video here.) This means that it’s more important than ever to know your plan to evacuate a room in case of fire, because it can burn more quickly and be even more dangerous.
It’s easy to determine the cause of a fire.
After a fire, real life doesn’t look exactly like the crime television shows. There’s no special machine or lie-detector test to discover how the fire started (and who started it). But fire inspectors do use science and extensive training to investigate the causes of a fire. And then they can classify it as accidental, natural, incendiary (intentional) or undetermined. (And because it must be proven to an acceptable level of certainty, it’s not uncommon for the cause to be undetermined.
A fire won’t happen to me.
We all wish we could guarantee that we would avoid a fire. And fire feels like something that only happens to other people. There are certainly ways to reduce risks – but the truth is that a fire occurs in the United States every 23 seconds. 23 seconds. In the time you read this entire post, as many as 15 fires have started in our country. And fire doesn’t discriminate. Unfortunately, local families like the Andersons, Larsons and St. Clairs know this fact too well.
The bottom line
Knowing more about fire can help keep you and your family safe. So learn all you can and be prepared – because fire truly can happen to anyone.