While fires are often unpredictable, there are many steps you can take to protect yourself, your family, and your property in the event of a fire. Structure fires are the most common type of fire in Missouri, and the most deadly. While Missouri is not known for large wildland fires, like those that regularly affect some western states, dry conditions, low humidity and strong winds can often combine to create dangerous brush and wildland fires. In the spring and summer of 2012, Missouri experienced the worst drought in decades, with most of the state suffering severe drought conditions. The drought pushed vegetation moisture levels to historic lows, leading to fires growing larger, moving faster, and even crowning—fire spreading from tree canopy to tree canopy—which is highly unusual in Missouri. The result was wildland fires in Missouri affected more than 10,000 acres. In 2010, three Missourians died in February and March when fires set to burn debris and brush got out of control and rapidly spread.
Preparedness before a fire
Fires can develop and spread quickly. There are many things you can do before a fire to minimize the risk.
Smoke alarms are an important tool in detecting a fire and keeping your family safe. A properly installed smoke alarm decreases you and your family member’s chance of dying by half. To make sure your smoke alarms are able to work properly:
- Install smoke alarms.
- Place smoke alarms on every level of your residence. Place them inside and outside each bedroom on the ceiling or high on the wall (top of detector should be 4 to 12 inches from ceiling), at the top of open stairways, or at the bottom of enclosed stairs and near (but not in) the kitchen.
- Test and clean smoke alarms once a month and replace batteries at least once a year. Replace smoke alarms once every 10 years.
- Install carbon monoxide alarms if you use fossil fuels such as propane/natural gas, oil, wood, coal fired appliances or if you have an attached garage. Follow manufacture’s installation instructions.
Escaping a fire is a task that should not go unplanned for you and your family. Make sure you:
- Review escape routes with your family. Plan and practice escape routes from each room in your home.
- Be prepared; learn to use every exit from your building.
- Know your local emergency number.
- Make sure windows are not nailed or painted shut and can be easily opened from the inside.
- Consider escape ladders if your residence has more than one level.
- Ensure that burglar bars, security gratings or other antitheft mechanisms that block outside window entry are easily opened from the inside.
- Teach family members to stay low to the floor when escaping from a fire.
- Clean out storage areas. Do not let trash, such as old newspapers and magazines, accumulate.
- Keep escape routes clear. Ensure stairs and walking areas are free of electrical cords, shoes, clothing, books and other clutter.
- Install nightlights and keep a flashlight, phone and an emergency phone numbers at your bedside.
Flammable items increase the threat of a fire. Ensure that you:
- Never use gasoline, benzene, naptha, or similar flammable liquids indoors.
- Store all flammable liquid in approved containers in well-ventilated storage areas.
- If you smoke, smoke outside. Never smoke near flammable liquids.
- Properly discard all rags or materials that have been soaked in flammable liquids after you have used them.
- Insulate chimneys and place spark arresters on top. The chimney should be installed in accordance with manufactures guidance. Typically a chimney should be installed at least three feet higher than the peak of the roof.
- Remove branches hanging above and near the chimney.
Protect your home from fires created by heating sources by making sure you:
- Use caution when using alternative heating sources.
- Check with your local fire department on the legality of using kerosene heaters in your community. Be sure to fill kerosene heaters outside, and be sure they have cooled before filling.
- Give space heaters space. Keep space heaters at least three feet away from combustible materials. Make sure the floor and nearby walls are properly fire rated.
- Use only the type of fuel designated for your heating appliance and follow manufacturer’s instructions.
- Store ashes in a metal container outside and away from your residence.
- Do not place ash containers on decks made of wood or composite materials.
- Keep open flames away from walls, furniture, drapery, and combustible items.
- Keep a screen in front of the fireplace.
- Have heating units inspected and cleaned annually by a reputable professional.
When using matches or smoking in your home, make sure you:
- Keep matches and lighters up high, away from children. If possible, keep them in a locked cabinet.
- Never smoke in bed or when drowsy or medicated.
- Provide smokers with deep, sturdy ashtrays.
- Douse cigarette and cigar butts with water before disposal.
Take the following steps to maintain and monitor electrical wiring in your home:
- Have the electrical wiring in your residence checked by a reputable electrician.
- Inspect extension cords for frayed or exposed wires or loose plugs.
- Make sure outlets have cover plates and no exposed wiring.
- Make sure wiring does not run under rugs, over nails, or across high-traffic areas.
- Do not overload extension cords or outlets. If you need to plug in two or three appliances, use a UL-approved power strip with built-in circuit breakers to prevent sparks and short circuits.
- Make sure insulation does not touch bare electrical wiring.
Other steps to minimize damages caused by a fire:
- Sleep with your door closed.
- Install A-B-C type fire extinguishers in your residence and teach family members how to use them.
- Consider installing an automatic fire sprinkler system in your residence.
- Ask your local fire department to inspect your residence for fire safety and prevention.
To prevent the spread of fires started to burn brush and debris, Missouri’s fire marshal recommends the following precautions:
- Check for local burn bans or restrictions before conducting any open burning.
- Keep fire a minimum of 75 feet from all buildings.
- Never use gasoline, kerosene or any other flammable liquid to start the fire.
- Do not leave a fire unattended.
- Have fire extinguishment materials on hand, including a water supply, shovels and rakes.
- Be prepared to extinguish your fire if the winds pick up.
- DO NOT delay a call for help – call the fire department immediately at the first sign of the fire getting out of control.
Preparedness tips during a fire
If there is a fire in your home, you should exit immediately and consider the following tips:
- If your clothes catch on fire, you should stop, drop to the ground/floor, and cover your face with your hands, roll over and back and forth until the fire is extinguished. Running only makes the fire burn faster. Use cool water for 3 to 5 minutes to cool the burn. Seek immediate medical attention.
- When exiting, you should check closed doors for heat before you open them. Use the back of your hand to feel the top of the door, the doorknob, and the crack between the door and door frame before you open it. Never use the palm of your hand or fingers to test for heat.
- If the door is hot, do not open. Exit through a window. If you cannot exit, hang a light-colored sheet outside the window, which will alert fire fighters to your location. If possible call 911 to report your location.
- If the door is cool, slowly open the door and ensure fire and/or smoke is not blocking your planned exit route. If your exit route is blocked, shut the door immediately and use an alternate exit route. If your route is clear, leave immediately through the door and close it behind you.
- Be prepared to crawl. Smoke and heat rise, the air is clearer and cooler near the floor.
- Crawl low under any smoke to your exit. Heavy smoke and poisonous gases collect first at ceiling level.
- Close doors behind you to delay the spread of the fire.
- Stay out once you are safe. Do not re-enter.
- Call 9-1-1 or the fire department’s emergency number from a neighbor’s phone or a cell phone.
Preparedness tips after a fire
How to react after a fire depends on the circumstances you are in.
- If you are with burn victims, or are a burn victim yourself, call 9-1-1. Cool and cover any burns to reduce the chance of further injury or infection.
- If you detect heat or smoke when entering a damaged building, evacuate immediately.
- If you are a tenant, contact the landlord.
- If you have a safe or strong box, do not try to open it. It can hold intense heat for several hours. If the door is open before the box has cooled, the contents could burst into flames.
- If you must evacuate your home because the building is deemed to be unsafe, ask someone you trust to watch the property during your absence.
Direct assistance to individuals and families may come from any number of organizations, including:
9-1-1 or your local fire department
Missouri chapters of the Red Cross:
- Greater St. Louis
- Central and Northern Missouri
- Southeast Missouri
- Greater Kansas City and Northwest Missouri
- Southern Missouri
- Ft. Leonard Wood
Other volunteer and faith-based organizations
These organizations provide food, shelter, supplies and assist in clean-up efforts.
- Ready.gov - Fires
- Ready.gov is the federal government’s best resource for general emergency preparedness and disaster readiness information for citizens. Learn how to prepare for fires.
- University of Missouri Extension: Fire
- Publications available from the University of Missouri Outreach & Extension can assist individuals and families prepare for fires.