While virtually impossible to render a modern home completely fire-safe, experts say that mitigating existing risks is key to survival in an emergency.
And with contemporary house fires typically burning faster and at higher intensities than in previous decades, diligent pre-planning can make all the difference.
“Although we now have less house fires than we used to, when they do occur, they can happen very quickly and often trap the people involved,” explains Chief Superintendent Chris Lewis from Fire Rescue NSW.
While they may look stylish and chic, modern furnishings can increase the danger posed by house fires.
“Thirty years ago, we filled our houses with furnishings made from solid wood,” says Chief Superintendent Lewis.
“These days we have a lot of polyester and foam, and a lot of hydrocarbons in the form of plastic furniture.
When they ignite the nature of the material means that they burn a lot faster and generate a lot more smoke than something like a solid wood desk.
“For example, a single modern lounge chair will take a house to flash over – the point where every combustible material in a room reaches a temperature where it all ignites at once – very quickly.
At that point the fire can go from 400 or 500 degrees Centigrade to 1000 degrees Centigrade.”
Contents that can increase fire intensity
The types of things in your home that can fuel a fire include:
- Modern sofas or armchairs
- Modern mattresses
- TVs or electronic games consoles
- Chemicals and petrol stored in the laundry
- Chemicals, boxes or paper stored next to stoves or other heat sources
- Clogged lint filters in clothes dryers
Far from advising us to ditch our mod cons in favour of something safer, Chief Superintendent Lewis advises simply being aware of the risks and planning around them.
He says that being mindful of furniture placement in terms of proximity to potential escape routes is an important first step, as is maintaining clear pathways to front and back doors and ground floor windows.
A pre-arranged escape plan (as well as a tested and maintained photoelectric smoke alarms in every bedroom) is equally critical.
“If an alarm goes off at 2am, you’ve really got to know how you and your family are going to get out because you may only have two minutes,” he says.
“That’s why you have to be thoroughly prepared by asking questions like: what’s the layout of my house?
What have I got in my house? Who will need assistance? What are the items that, if on fire, could be very difficult to get past?
For instance, do I have chemicals in my laundry that will make escaping through it impossible if those chemicals ignite?
This type of advance preparation can save lives.”
Significantly, flammable objects aren’t the only source of risk in a house fire. Dr Yaping He, senior lecturer of Fire Safety Engineering at Western Sydney University, says vigilance needs to extend to other areas as well.
“A fire hazard doesn’t have to be something that burns,” says Dr He.
“A fire hazard is also something that can impede escape from a burning building.
For example, doors that are locked and prevent quick escape during an emergency are a fire hazard.
Similarly, safety screen doors that can’t be opened easily from inside are also a fire hazard.”
Dr He says we also need to be mindful of risks potentially posed by structural components of adjoined dwellings.
“Adjoining compartments, townhouses or villa-type houses are required to have fire-rated separation walls,” he says.
“But if for some reason you have a penetration point through these walls that has not been properly designed or protected, it can also be regarded as a hazard because a fire may spread through this penetration to the neighbouring property.
The best way to eliminate structural fire hazards is to get a building professional’s opinion when you plan to build or renovate your property.”
Originally published on Fairfax Media on 14th November 2016.