Fire safety 101

When it comes to fire safety, what we don’t know can hurt us. Learning how to prevent fires and install alarm systems helps prevent harm to property, ourselves, our neighbours and firefighters.

by Lisa Harrison

Fire can spark for so many reasons, spread so quickly and cause so much harm that fire safety education is a never-ending job for firefighters.

Sweeping a chimney from inside the home using a vacuum and tarps to control the dust. (Photo credit: Myers Chimney)

Chimney sweeping serves as a good illustration of the ongoing need for public fire safety education. Local fire departments advise property owners to have heating sources inspected and cleaned annually, including the chimneys. Yet the term “chimney sweep” can conjure up an image of Bert the sweep in the bygone era of Disney’s Mary Poppins, and homeowners don’t always see the need for chimney sweeping in current times.

Chimney fires are among the most common causes of local 9-1-1 fire calls, so firefighters continue to work on raising awareness of the need for this service. Local experts such as Ian Myers of Myers Chimney in Minden are available to provide it.

“Sweeps have always had an important role in terms of removing hazardous deposits from chimneys,” says Myers. “The only difference historically since the trade’s beginnings is modern equipment, including personal protective equipment. I want to help remind people not having a chimney fire is their responsibility and within their control.”

 
When creosote residue in a chimney catches fire it puffs up and blocks the flue, causing smoke to billow into the house. (Photo credit: Myers Chimney)

Further educational notes are provided here by Nelson Johnson, fire chief, Minden Hills Fire Department, Tony Van Dam, fire chief for the Georgian Bay Fire Department and fire coordinator for the District Municipality of Muskoka, and Terry Jones, acting chief for the City of Kawartha Lakes Fire Department.

Turning up the heat

• Keep anything that can burn away from the furnace and do not use the furnace room for storage.

• Ensure all vents for any heating system, including your dryer, are clear of snow and other debris.

• Keep ashes and coals in a metal container away from the home and at least three metres away from combustibles.

• Consider purchasing a fire safe and approved ash container, or prepare a contained location with walls from six to 18cms high to block the wind.

• Read and follow all manufacturer directions for your portable heater.

• Ensure your portable heater shuts off automatically if it tips over.

• Plug portable heaters directly into outlets and never into an extension cord or power strip.

• Keep anything that can burn, including fabric, at least one metre away from a portable heater.

• Turn portable heaters off when leaving the room or going to bed.

Cooking with care

• Do not leave cooking appliances unattended when in use.

• Do not use cooking appliances if you are under the influence of alcohol.

• Clean barbecues before using them and always watch lit barbecues.

• Keep combustibles, children and pets well away from barbecues and keep barbecue lighters and matches out of sight and reach of children.

• Do not use barbecues indoors to avoid carbon monoxide buildup.

Wired for safety

• Do not use extension cords in place of permanent wiring.

• Do not use an extension cord or any other electrical cord that is frayed or nicked.

Open flames

• Before installing a fireplace, consult the building department regarding any required permits.

• Keep a glass or metal screen in front of the fireplace to prevent embers or sparks jumping out.

• Put the fireplace fire out before you go to sleep or leave your dwelling.

• If burning candles, use sturdy candleholders that will not tip and are covered with a glass shade. Do not leave them unattended. When you go out, blow out.

• If planning a campfire or brush fire, check with your local fire department to ensure that it’s permitted.

• If open burning is allowed, build the fire on bare soil or on exposed rock and clear away combustible debris in a three-metre radius. Always keep a bucket of water, sand or a shovel close by and supervise the fire at all times.

Put propane in its place

• Keep propane tanks well away from structures in case of leakage and explosion.

Tobacco and alcohol use

• Tobacco use and excessive alcohol consumption are contributing factors in many fires and can lead to serious injuries. If you smoke, do so outside and keep a large can with water nearby so cigarette butts can be safely discarded, and if you drink, do so responsibly.

Starve a fire

• Close bedroom doors when you go to bed and close doors to rooms, closets, storage rooms and service areas when you leave the house to reduce a fire’s ability to spread.

Be alarmed

• Ensure that you install smoke alarms on every level and outside all sleeping areas. It’s the law for all Ontario homes, cottages and cabins, says Johnson.

• Use interconnected alarms so when one alarm sounds, they all sound.

• Test smoke alarms at least once a month or each time you return to the cottage. Pack a new smoke alarm and extra batteries in case they need replacement.

• Replace smoke alarms every 10 years.

• Install and regularly test carbon monoxide alarms in your dwelling, especially if it has a fuel-burning appliance.

• If you use propane, install a propane alarm near the floor or below the propane line (propane is heavier than air).

• Consider installing a remote-monitored alarm system that will send an alert to your phone.

Go to the top of the class

The better the education and planning, the better the chance to save property and lives. Fire departments can schedule a home visit to assess your site and offer tips that would improve the fire safety of your property. They can provide specialized guidance to landlords and tenants. They also offer educational materials and sessions on topics such as smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, escape planning, fire extinguishers and home fire safety inspections.

Resources

In addition, local fire chiefs recommend the following local municipal websites and social media:

• Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs at oafc.on.ca/public-safety

• Office of the Fire Marshal at ontario.ca/page/office-fire-marshal

• Close Before You Doze at closeyourdoor.org

• Province of Ontario at ontario.ca/page/fire-safety-home

• National Fire Prevention Association at nfpa.org/publiceducation

• FireSmart Canada (wildfire preparedness) at firesmartcanada.ca