• Words: Richard Lancaster Graphic: Kelvin Hawley

The Last Word: Don’t Play With Fire


Ever since humans first discovered the warming benefits of fire, our relationship with this phenomenon has thankfully been guarded. We know of its benefits, but we are still coming to grips with its unpredictability.

Fire, started either by humans or by natural means, can play out on a grand stage. Recent horrific scenes of fast moving wildfires in Greece and California, resulting in the deaths of many people and the destruction of countless homes and businesses, have lit up our television screens and headlined our newspapers, rekindling memories of Australia’s most devastating Black Saturday bushfires.

In February 2009, 180 Victorians died, 2,000 homes were destroyed, and millions head of stock and wildlife perished, all consumed by as many as 400 separate bushfires in one weekend. Earlier in February 1983, South Australia’s infamous Ash Wednesday bushfires caused the deaths of 28 people and the loss of countless stock and wildlife. These horrific worldwide firestorms had one thing in common - the weather. Low rainfall resulting in tinder-dry conditions, accompanied by high winds, is a sure recipe for a disastrous fire season. And one match, lightning strike or power failure can start it.

But closer to home, fire knows no boundaries; playing out on a smaller, yet equally devastating scale. Rarely a day goes by when we are not reminded of that fact. Nightly, our television screens show devastating scenes of home and business fires in our suburbs. Families losing loved ones, pets and treasured possessions, including their homes or businesses, acutely show us their anguish and we sympathise by offering assistance. So how safe are you from man’s so-called friend, Fire? Not very, many experts say!

What are the common causes of an accidental fire occurring in your home? Overheating pots and pans in the kitchen left unattended, and portable heaters and candles left too close to flammable items such as curtains, clothing and furniture are all potential fire starters. So too is aging household electrical equipment such as toasters, microwaves and the like, with frayed and exposed cords on this equipment all fire hazards.

Faulty building wiring (another cause), can be detected by lights dimming without reason, fuses blowing or frequent circuit tripping. Flammable liquids such as petrol, kerosene, gas tanks and the like are dangerous when kept close to heat sources. In the case of gas bottles, checks on leakage when near the fired up BBQ is recommended.

Smoking in the home presents its own unique set of dangers, and allowing children access to matches or a lighter can potentially spell disaster.

All of these hazards should be incorporated into a Home Hazard Check List, which authorities advise should be ticked off every six months. Authorities also advise that each household must have certified, regularly checked smoke detectors installed, in addition to an updated fire insurance policy and a fire evacuation plan. Similar rules apply to businesses.

In a two-decade-old Readers Digest article by Frank Field entitled `Could Your Family Survive a Fire?’ he asks the reader, “How long do you have to escape an unattended wastepaper fire in your home, whilst you are sleeping upstairs?” According to fire experts the answer is one to two minutes!

This is the scenario. Within two minutes the smoke detector has sounded. In three minutes, temperatures in the downstairs rooms have reached 126°C and the space is filling with noxious fumes. In four minutes, the upstairs and downstairs hallways are impassable. Seconds later, anyone still inside the house will have died from smoke inhalation or been burned alive.

In a fire, you have no time to collect valuables or even get properly dressed, that’s why a regularly rehearsed fire evacuation plan is vital. Fire is explosive, the heat is indescribable, the smoke is impenetrable and it’s all very frightening!

Knowing the dangers of fire and how to cope can be the difference between life and death.


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