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How to put out fires

Every fire has its own origin, its own character, and its own trajectory. Knowing a fire's cause is the most important element in figuring out how to fight it, as this determines what kind of extinguisher to use to keep it from burning out of control. In all cases, call 911 or the appropriate emergency responders for your area immediately, being sure to tell them what kind of fire you're facing. Even if a firetruck is on the way or if the fire is small, evacuate the area, alerting all occupants of the danger.

Combustible material fire

Burning materials like wood and fabric are the most common kindling, but also the most deadly. Even though smoke inhalation is the most frequently fatal part of any fire, a spark can set off a major conflagration in less than 30 seconds – that's less time than it takes most people to put their coat on and leave in the morning.

The best way to avoid a fire is prevention – make sure it never starts. A few tips:

• Don't smoke in bed, and whenever you smoke, make sure all ashes are extinguished before you leave the area. Even a small spark can escape an ashtray with a gust of wind.

• Make sure you have a smoke alarm in your house and workplace, and test them every six months.

• Don't overuse any single plug. Running five high-amperage appliances out of one plug can cause a fire.

• Ensure that you have two escape routes out of any room in your home or office.

• Many fires are caused by heat-generating appliances like space heaters, hair dryer and irons. Double check to make sure these are unplugged before you leave the room that they're in.

If a fire does occur, the best thing to do is to evacuate immediately and contact emergency personnel. All varieties of fire extinguisher work on organic material fires (with varying effectiveness), though Class A is often preferred. Do not attempt to put out a fire that is higher than your head.

Grease and chemicals

Among the more fearsome of conflagrations, grease and chemical fires present a few unique problems. They tend to start in kitchens, either in deep fryers or on stovetops, so many people's first reaction is to spray the fire with water. Attempting to put out a grease or chemical fire with water can be extremely dangerous, however. (The same guidelines apply for gasoline and most flammable liquids as with grease.)

If you've ever tried to drop something wet into hot oil, then you know how the oil can spit when it gets too hot – that's steam moisture being ejected (forcefully!) from the oil. The hotter it is, the more it tends to spit, so grease hot enough to cause a fire will cause a minor explosion. Baking soda in very large amounts can actually smother a grease or chemical fire, but it takes quantities larger than is likely to be found in the average home to actually succeed.

If the fire is small – if it's in a frying pan or skillet – you may be able to put it out by smothering it. If the fire is on a stovetop, you might begin by turning the heat off, then trying to put a top on and seeing if the fire dies down.

The best solution, though, is to use a potassium acetate fire extinguisher (class K) for grease. For other flammable liquids, use an extinguisher classed ABC, BC, DC (for "dry chemical"). Many homes don't even have these varieties of fire extinguisher – in the US, most homes have fewer PFEs than they have televisions. Don't risk assuming yours isn't water-based if you can't tell. If you plan to do much frying at home or work, a class K extinguisher is the kind of investment that you may never have to use – but if you do, it might save your life.

Electrical fires

We all know what happens if you put electrical equipment in water – it'll short out, but it can also cause an extremely dangerous current to pass through the water. Never use water or chemical fire extinguishers on an electrical fire.

Electrical fires are often hidden from view. They can happen in the walls, triggering an unpleasant smell and anything from a smoldering flame to a raging inferno. If you suspect that an electrical device or some hidden wiring has caught fire – whether due to faulty wiring, moisture, or overloaded circuits – shut off your circuit breaker immediately and call emergency personnel.

If you can see an electrical device that has caught fire, you can try extinguishing the flame with a CO2 (or class BC) extinguisher. (These are relatively uncommon, but if you plan to draw heavily on electricity, they're essential.) CO2 extinguishers deprive fires of oxygen, and therefore may not work as well on burning substances like wood or paper – after spraying CO2, the fire can sit dormant for a short time and flare up again once the carbon dioxide has dispersed.

 
 
Fire Extinguisher Safety
Fire extinguishers may work for small fires, but for larger ones, prevention is the best cure.
 
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How to put out fires
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