When we hear the term “home security,” we usually think about the importance of finding a home security system to protect our property, its possessions, and most of all, the people living inside it. Securing the fort is absolutely a critical part of keeping the things that are most important to us safe from harm. However, there is another threat we need to safeguard our homes against, because as it turns out, one of the most damaging intruders to our dwellings doesn’t want to steal our valuables. Instead, it causes our property to go up in flames — literally.
No matter how careful we are, the unfortunate reality is that everyone is at risk of experiencing a devastating home fire. Even if you don’t live in an area that’s susceptible to one of the tens of thousands of wildfires that breaks out in the United States each year, you may fall victim to one of the hundreds of thousands of house fires that occurs annually. Perhaps what’s even scarier is the fact that humans are responsible for starting nearly all of these blazes.
While it’s true that as an imperfect human, you are your own worst enemy when it comes to causing fires, you are also your greatest ally. There are many safety measures you can take to protect your property, your family, and yourself, and most of them don’t take a lot of time, money, or skill. We’ve created the ultimate home fire-safety checklist to help you protect yourself against a disastrous fire — and stay safe should tragedy strike.
Checklist: Fire prevention and safety actions to take outside your home
Fires frequently start outside of the home, whether they’re caused by human error (like forgetting to douse a backyard campfire) or by the environment (such as a wildfire or a blaze that travels from a nearby neighbor’s home). Fortunately, there are plenty of actions you can take to reduce your risk of falling victim to flames.
- Landscape for fire safety. This is an especially important step if you live in a wildfire-prone region or in close proximity to your neighbors (if a nearby house is on fire, then yours is at risk). This project involves:
- Removing highly-flammable plants and adding fire-resistant flora
- Removing dead, dry foliage and limbs from your lawn and trees
- Creating defensible space between your home and landscaping (experts recommend a barrier of at least 100 feet)
- Regularly clear flammable debris from the exterior features of your home. This includes clearing your roof, gutters, deck, awnings, and decorative structures of dead foliage and other flammable material.
- Evaluate your home’s construction materials. Some home materials make your home more susceptible to catching fire, especially those that are manufactured. For example, natural wood burns less quickly than man-made lumber and vinyl. You can’t change the materials your home was built from, but it’s important to be aware that you may have an increased risk of a fire so you can plan accordingly.
- Make sure your sprinkler system is in working order. In addition to keeping your landscaping hydrated (and prevent it from becoming a fire hazard), you may be able to stave off flames from an encroaching fire by turning your system on in an emergency.
- Consider replacing a flammable outdoor fence with a fire-retardant one if you live in an area at risk for wildfires. Vinyl, wood composite, and other man-made materials are more likely to ignite and burn rapidly than wooden or natural stone structures.
- Create an easy route for you to reach outdoor pets quickly and safely, and make sure they have access to the defensible space you’ve created at all times. Although you would never leave your pet home alone during an active wildfire warning, should a neighbor’s home catch fire while you’re away, your furry friend could be in danger.
- Move all flammable liquids as far away from the main part of your home as possible, including gasoline, kerosene, and lighter fluid.
- Supervise outdoor fires at all times, and make sure they’re fully extinguished before leaving them unattended. This includes lit fire pits, grills, and candles.
- Ensure there is easy access to your home for fire and rescue vehicles should disaster strike.
Checklist: Fire prevention and safety actions to take inside your home
When it comes to safeguarding the interior of your home from fire-related tragedy, there are some details you can’t control. For example, open floor plans provide more oxygen to fuel flames, so fires tend to spread more quickly in these types of home. While you can’t change your floor plan, you can take effective action throughout your home to protect your loved ones and your property.
- Find a home security system with smoke and fire protection. Many home security systems now offer 24/7 monitoring against home fires. Pairing one of these smart home security systems with smoke detectors throughout your home can alert you to danger within seconds.
- Ensure your smoke detectors work by testing them every month. Replace batteries every six months, and replace the entire fire alarm every 10 years. Ideally, there should be one in each room and hallway of your home, but at the very minimum, have one in each bedroom.
- Consider adding a fire sprinkler system to your home’s interior. Studies have shown that they reduce deaths, injuries, and property damage from fires.
- Have your electrical panel and wiring inspected. Homes older than 15 years may not have enough electricity to power all of the electronic devices and systems inside them, and many have outdated wiring. Both of these factors create a fire hazard, and because addressing them isn’t a DIY job, you’ll need to hire an electrician to upgrade your electrical panel and wiring, if necessary.
- Opt for fire-resistant materials in your home as much as possible. Common synthetic materials (like polyester and anything containing hydrocarbons) used in furniture, bedding, and carpeting burn more quickly than natural materials. If possible, select natural materials (like wood and cotton) over man-made ones.
- Keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and any other rooms where one may be needed, including areas where you have a fireplace, burn candles, and use space heaters. Be sure to purchase the right type of fire extinguisher based on the type of fire it may be used for.
- Keep flammable materials away from open-heat and open-flame sources. For example, long curtains should hang several feet away from your heater, and cookbooks should be placed away from your stovetop.
- Have your fireplace cleaned and maintained regularly. You should do this at least once per year, ideally before the start of fall (or before the start of whichever season you use it most often).
- Childproof and pet-proof your oven, stove, and fireplace to prevent curious kids and critters from accidentally starting a fire.
- Keep your oven and stove clean and free of debris.
- Never use flammable products in ovens or on stovetops, and never put metal in the microwave.
- Always keep an eye on fireplaces, candles, and stovetops that have an open flame or are emitting heat. Never leave them unattended, and be sure all flames and heat are completely out before leaving the room.
- Use caution with space heaters. Never leave them unattended, and keep them out of reach of children and pets when in use.
- Repair worn power cords on household devices.
- Make sure outlets aren’t overloaded with plugs.
- Clean the lint trap in your dryer with every use, and have your dryer vent inspected and cleaned at least once per year. If you do multiple loads of laundry throughout the week, you may need to clean your vent more often.
- Take photos of your home inside and out, and from every angle in every room. Also take snapshots of your valuables, and scan receipts that show the purchase price and buy date onto your computer. Save the images to a cloud-based server so you can easily access them should you need them for your insurance agent.
Checklist: Safety actions and tools for evacuation
Sadly, even the most well-prepared home can still catch fire. Should you find yourself needing to evacuate your home in an emergency, every minute will count. These safety measures and tools will help you get out quickly and safely with every family member in tow.
- Make an escape plan, and practice it with your family. Your emergency evacuation plan should include a clear method for getting every member of your household (including your pets) out of your home and to a safe meeting point. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) provides information on everything your plan needs to include.
- Build an emergency evacuation kit. If a fire breaks out — even a wildfire you’ve been notified is approaching — you may only have minutes to flee. As part of your family’s escape plan, designate a spot where you will keep your evacuation kit (next to the front door, for example) and the person responsible for grabbing it. This kit should include:
- A fire-resistant bag
- A flash drive with copies of your driver’s license(s), Social Security card(s), birth certificate(s), health records for people and pets, house deed, and life planning documents (such as wills and trusts)
- Bottled water (a couple of bottles per person is enough if you’re escaping a house fire, but you’ll need about three gallons of water per person if you’re evacuating a wildfire)
- Non-perishable food (snacks are enough if you’re escaping a house fire, but you’ll need three days’ worth of food per person if you’re evacuating a wildfire)
- Pet supplies, including ID tags, a rabies tag/certificate, a harness and leash, a crate, and food and water (ration your pet’s food and water the same way you do for the human members of your family)
- Money and/or a credit card (keep in mind that if you’re evacuating a wildfire, there may be power and internet outages that make it difficult to pay with anything other than cash)
- A first-aid kit
- Prescription medication
- A flashlight
- Mobile phone chargers
- A battery-powered radio
- Baby wipes or other portable cleansing wipes
- Any critical items for family members with special needs (diapers for babies or extra batteries for a hearing aid, for example)
Checklist: Safety actions to take after a fire
If the worst does happen, there are important safety steps to take in order to recover from the devastation. There’s no sugarcoating it: if you are the victim of a fire, the recovery process will likely be a long and emotional one. Try to remember that you will get through it, and know that there are plenty of professionals available to help you.
- Do not enter your home until emergency services have told you it’s safe to do so. Even if it’s safe to visit your home, you might be better off staying somewhere else for a few weeks or months if there is a lot of damage. If your homeowners insurance isn’t paying for temporary housing and you’re unable to stay with a friend or family member, FEMA, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army may be able to help you find and pay for a place to stay
- Notify your utility providers that your home was damaged in a fire. It’s critical for safety purposes to shut off electrical, gas, and plumbing lines while the home is unoccupied and/or being repaired.
- Take photos of your home, and create an inventory of the valuables you lost in the fire. Remove anything you can from the property for safekeeping somewhere offsite.
- Contact your homeowners insurance agent. Your agent will review the damage to your home, the items destroyed by the fire (as well as the pictures and receipts you have for these belongings), and your options for paying for home repairs.
- Hire a fire damage restoration company. These professionals will clean up damage caused by fire, smoke, and soot, which is an important step to take before starting any major structural work.
- Reach out to other contractors who can help you rebuild your home. Keep in mind that for any service you need, you should interview and get quotes from at least three contractors.
Protecting your home against fires is a critical home security measure that no one can afford to overlook. While you can’t guarantee you’ll never experience a catastrophe from a wildfire or a home-based blaze, there is a lot you can do to cut your risk. Take a look at the exterior and interior of your home to identify potential problem areas and take action. Create an evacuation plan and pack an emergency kit in case disaster strikes, and if it does, work with local emergency services, contractors, and your homeowners insurance agent to get the post-fire recovery process on track. With some careful planning and preparation now, you can protect your home and your loved ones from tragedy in the future.