On Dec. 30, 2021, shortly before 10:30 a.m., the impossible happened.
In the middle of the Colorado prairie, a small grass fire morphed into a neighborhood-devouring inferno. Fueled by 110 mph winds, the flames engulfed sleepy neighborhoods in mere minutes—ultimately destroying 1,085 homes and damaging about another 150.
The residents were caught on their heels, completely unprepared for the emergency.
And although not all fires involve the destruction of more than 1,000 homes, the ferocity and panic a fire brings are all the same.
And all fires move with devastating speed.
As such, two things are imperative to the survival of a fire, especially for older adults: preparation and prevention.
Firefighter Josh Hamilton from the North Metro Fire Department in Broomfield, Colorado, shared some tips and advice for how older adults can prepare themselves and their homes in case of fire, and what steps they can take to prevent a fire from occurring in the first place.
Hamilton mentioned three simple preparation measures older adults can enact that will go a long way in making their homes much safer: properly functioning and placed smoke alarms, kitchen fire extinguishers, and an emergency escape plan.
“Smoke detectors save lives, but they have to be in working order,” Hamilton explained. “Smoke detectors should be replaced every seven to 10 years and the batteries in them twice a year. Most fire departments have people that will replace detectors and batteries for older adults.”
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) also recommends installing a working smoke alarm on every level of your home, outside sleeping areas and inside bedrooms. Replace smoke alarm batteries once every year.
Kitchen fire extinguishers
Experts definitely recommend keeping a fire extinguisher handy in the kitchen in case of fire.
“Most fires in the home begin in the kitchen,” Hamilton explained. “Every house should have a fire extinguisher located near an exit closest to the kitchen.”
Emergency escape plan
Once a fire starts, it will spread rapidly. A predetermined escape plan will increase the chances of survival in case of a fire or similar emergency. Get out as fast as possible, and remember CPSC advice: once you’re out, stay out!
Hamilton provided Seasonss with additional advice: the importance of practicing the plan and anticipating barriers.
“It is very important to have a plan in case of a fire and to practice,” he said. “Think about what is the best and fastest way out of your home. Is there a tricky lock or sticky door anywhere that may need to be fixed or replaced? Is there anything in the egress path or in front of a door?”
Clean the chimneys
Make sure your chimney(s) have been professionally inspected by a certified chimney sweep technician within the last year. A woodburning fireplace can create creosote, a highly flammable substance, which can build up inside the chimney and cause a chimney fire.
“Wood stoves and fireplaces are a fantastic heat source for a home,” Hamilton said. “Chimney fires are somewhat common but can easily be prevented. Knowing how to properly use your fireplace or woodstove flue is very important as well as regularly cleaning your chimney or stovepipe.”
Clogged chimneys can also cause poisonous carbon monoxide (CO) to build up and backflow into your home.
While the obvious culprits – smoking materials and cooking products – are two major causes of fire-related accidents, especially for older adults, a CSPC report found that clothing fire deaths affect older adults 14 times higher than people under 65. In fact, an estimated 60 older adults die each year due to clothing fire accidents.
Pants are the most common clothing item to ignite and cause injury or death, followed by shirts, nightgowns and robes. Follow some key tips to keep your older adult safe:
- Be careful with your garments around cooking surfaces – Keep sleeves and loose clothing away from the cooktop.
- Smoking and clothing – Cigarettes and pipes can easily ignite clothing, so ensure your senior never smokes while drowsy or while connected to oxygen. And safely extinguish all smoking material.
- Clothing and outdoor fire safety – Keep a safe distance from any outdoor fire, and keep lighter fluid off clothing. Make sure outdoor fires are contained in a container.
Space heater safety
“Space heaters need space,” according to the CPSC, so remember to keep loose pants and robes away from heaters. And ensure each space heater has at least 4 feet of space on each side of it.
Dirty space heaters are also a problem, so if you worry about the age or condition of an older heater, it’s likely too old and needs to be replaced.
Be cautious with electric blankets
Be sure the power cord is not pinched or crushed by any part of the bed, and make sure it’s not pinned between the bed and the wall, or the bed and the floor.
If an object covers the blanket’s heating elements or controls, it can cause the control panel to overheat and could cause a fire. Nothing, including other blankets, comforters, or even sleeping pets or people, should be on top of the electric blanket while it’s in use.
Also, never “tuck in” an electric blanket. This can cause excessive heat buildup and start a fire. Ensure the edges of the blanket are hanging freely over the sides and end of the bed.
Finally, always turn off a heating pad before you go to sleep. It can cause serious burns even at relatively low settings if left on.
Hamilton explained how to use cords properly:
“Extension cords should never be used permanently or in a fixed position. If extra length is needed for an electronic device, a power strip should always be used because it has a circuit breaker built in for safety. They come in a variety of sizes and lengths.”
See the CPSC Safety for Older Consumers – Home Safety Checklist for additional information and safety tips.