Closing doors can slow a fire's growth. But this early-morning rural structure fire was fueled when the homeowner awoke to a smoke-filled room and, assuming it was a minor problem with the wood stove, threw open doors and windows. (Photo by Donna Kallner)

Let’s be blunt: Rural volunteer firefighters may have the same training and firefighting skills as their urban counterparts. But out in the country, it takes more time to get personnel and equipment to the scene of a structure fire.

And water? I wrote about the challenges of getting water to a fire scene here. Water supply for fire suppression and distance to a fire station are key factors in determining higher premiums to insure rural homes. That includes the homes of many rural volunteer firefighters.

So most of them take fire prevention seriously and wish their neighbors would too. Fire Prevention Week is a good time to start, so here are seven simple, practical things you can do.

But first, a short rural history lesson.

Fire Prevention Week is observed each year during the week of October 9th in commemoration of the Great Chicago Fire. You probably remember the story from 1871 about how Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lamp, sparking a blaze that burned more than 2,000 acres and killed more than 250 people. What you may not remember is that on the same date 250 miles to the north, a rural area in Wisconsin also burned.

The Peshtigo Fire burned 1.2 million acres and killed nearly 2,500 people. Telegraph wires burned, so news trickling out of northern Wisconsin was overshadowed by news of the fire and relief efforts in Chicago. Both events were fueled by drought, wind, and human impacts. A century and a half later, similar conditions contributed to this year’s devastating fires at Lahaina and Upcountry Maui. We need to be paying attention to the environmental, economic, and social factors that could fuel the next historic fire event. We can start by hardening our defenses in our own homes. No excuses.

In the kitchen. The focus for Fire Prevention Week this year is on home cooking fires. Cooking fires are the leading cause of home fires and home fire injuries. Unattended cooking is the leading cause of cooking fires and deaths. Home fires caused by cooking peak at Thanksgiving and Christmas. But you have time before the holidays to ingrain safer habits. For example, stay in the kitchen and alert while cooking. Keep anything that can catch fire away from your stovetop. That includes oven mitts, wooden utensils, food packaging, paper towels, and the bottle of booze used in my family’s Thanksgiving favorite – Bourbon-Glazed Wild Turkey. Keep a lid nearby to slide onto the pan to smother a small grease fire (don’t use water on those), then turn off the burner and leave the pan covered until it’s completely cooled. For an oven fire, turn off the heat and keep the oven door closed while you get everyone out of the house and call 911. More than half of non-fatal injuries occur when people try to control a fire themselves. If you try to fight a cooking fire, first be sure others are getting out and calling 911 and that you have a clear escape route (not a snaggle of boots by a door obscured by smoke).

Fire extinguishers. Portable fire extinguishers are an important component in rural fire prevention. They’re great for putting out or buying time against a small fire that’s confined to a small area (like a wastebasket) and not growing. But fire can grow and spread rapidly, so first make sure everyone else has exited the building and someone has called 911. Keep your back to a clear exit so you can make an easy escape if the fire cannot be controlled. If the room fills with smoke, leave immediately. To operate a fire extinguisher,  remember the word P.A.S.S.

  • Pull the pin. Hold the extinguisher with the nozzle pointing away from you as you pull the pin to release the lock.
  • Aim low, pointing the nozzle at the base of the fire.
  • Squeeze the lever slowly and evenly.
  • Sweep the nozzle from side to side.

Last year after Bill and I replaced the 20-year-old fire extinguishers in our home, we donated the old ones to our fire department to use in a program with our school district’s 3rd graders. The kids got to practice the P.A.S.S. system for real and loved it. For adults, too, it’s much easier to remember what to do if you’ve practiced when the flames are imaginary. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has more information on using fire extinguishers here.

Smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. More than a quarter of people killed by cooking fires were sleeping. We can assume many of them didn’t intend to nod off, but it happens. That’s just one reason to make sure your home is equipped with working smoke alarms in every bedroom, outside every sleeping area, and on every level of your home. Replace all smoke alarms every 10 years, test them monthly, and change backup batteries annually. If you or someone you know can’t afford smoke detectors or cannot install them properly, check out this American Red Cross program.

Likewise, free carbon monoxide detectors may be available to low-income families, senior citizens, and the hearing impaired through Weatherization Assistance Programs, your local fire department, or even your insurance carrier. Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless – and deadly. If members of your household are experiencing shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, light-headedness, or headaches, leave immediately and call 911. Your fire department has meters to measure the levels of carbon monoxide and other gasses and safely track down the source. Last year, our fire department responded to a call where the unexpected reason for the CO alarm was a whole-house generator professionally installed outside but drifting exhaust toward the eaves.

Fire drills at home. Some things are, sadly, not at all unexpected – like filling the kitchen with smoke when sausage rolls off a frozen pizza in a hot oven. But when an unexpected alarm sounds in the middle of the night, your family needs to know what to do. There’s a reason why schools conduct regular fire drills: They work. Fire escape plans also work for homes and businesses, but they require some planning – preferably planning that involves all members of the household. A plan should identify two or more clear escape routes out of each room, a designated outside meeting place at a safe distance from the structure, arrangements for assisting infants and those with mobility or cognitive concerns, a plan for pets, and a plan for calling 911 and clearly communicating the address or location. Once you have a plan, practice – at least twice a year. Here’s more helpful information on home fire escape plans.

Close doors. As you practice your fire escape plan, learn to close doors behind you. Changes in building construction and furnishings mean fire can spread faster now, and you may only have about three minutes to escape. Fire needs oxygen to burn. Closed doors can slow a fire’s growth. Better yet, get into the habit of closing bedroom doors at night. In a fire, the temperature outside a closed door can be 1,000 degrees compared to 100 degrees in the bedroom.

Outside. A wildland fire doesn’t need to be in your own backyard for it to threaten your home. Windborne embers can travel a mile or more. So do all you can to deny them the chance to threaten your home and outbuildings. For example, clean roofs and gutters of dead leaves, debris, and pine needles, and keep those and other flammable materials away from the structure – especially wood decks and porches. Move firewood piles and anything else that can burn away from the structure. Replace or repair loose or missing shingles or roof tiles to prevent ember penetration, and install 1/8 inch metal mesh screening on eaves and over exterior attic vents. Clear vegetation from under and around large propane tanks. NFPA has a number of helpful resources.

Start here, then visit this site for links to specific resources that can help you understand and reduce the vulnerability of your home’s roofing materials, attic and crawl space vents, eaves, decks, skylights, and more.

Burning leaves. Last year our volunteer fire department responded to two structure fires caused by people burning fallen leaves. That’s a common practice in rural areas where there’s no municipal pick-up of yard waste. In both cases, the people thought they were burning responsibly. In both cases, wind gusts picked up embers and carried them to structures, where they ignited combustible materials. One had deferred burning planned for earlier in the day because of the wind. They waited for the calm of evening before lighting the pile. Imagine their horror at seeing one good gust set their house on fire. That’s when you look around and see your steep, narrow driveway doesn’t offer much room to park fire apparatus. And that your road is just barely wide enough for two fire trucks to squeeze past each other on a water relay. And that your local volunteer fire department relies on mutual aid partnerships with other rural volunteer fire departments to muster enough personnel, equipment, and water to fight a structure fire. And that it seems like they take forever to arrive.

What they probably didn’t realize was that drawing all those resources to a fire that could have been avoided left half a dozen other rural communities a little more vulnerable that night. And every call that can be prevented is worth the effort.


Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin. She and her husband are members of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department.

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