Deadly Blazes in Cities Prompt Look at Residential Fire Trends, Prevention

awareness is key to fire survival

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Firefighter trying to put out a house on fire
In the case of fire, even a small one, call the fire department to have professionals control it and put the fire out. Photo by John Hanley / Shutterstock

On Wednesday, January 5, a Philadelphia rowhouse erupted in flames. Officials determined that 12 died, nine of whom were children. On Sunday, January 9, a fire in a Bronx apartment building killed 17 people, all of whom died of smoke inhalation. In Philadelphia, a small child played with a lighter near a Christmas tree. In the Bronx, a space heater was to blame.

Nearly 30 people died in urban residential fires within four days, just on the East Coast of the United States. Being aware of what to look out for can mean the difference between life and death. In his video series When Everything Fails: Surviving Any Disaster, Dr. Stephen Owen, Professor of Criminal Justice at Radford University, provides tips for occasions like this.

The Fire Tetrahedron and Fire Prevention

In order to understand what fire is, we have to look beyond flames licking up at the sky. According to Dr. Owen, four components produce fire: fuel, heat, oxygen, and a chemical reaction. Together, these are known as the fire tetrahedron.

“Fuel is what’s burning—if there’s no fuel, there’s no fire—[and] a heat source is required to elevate the temperature to the point where something burns,” Dr. Owen said. “Oxygen is required to sustain a fire. Finally, fire is best viewed as a chemical reaction that occurs when the other three elements are present. It’s important to acknowledge the fire tetrahedron, because it underlies so much of fire prevention.”

For fire prevention, Dr. Owen said, it’s important to keep fuel away from flames and other heat sources. In a situation like grilling in the backyard, the best practice is to be vigilant and ensure that no unexpected or unwanted fuels are introduced to the fire, that the chemical reaction itself doesn’t travel farther than intended, and to make sure that a fire extinguisher is handy for the quick extinguishing of a fire that gets out of control.

Double Trouble

Two of the most dangerous effects in a structural fire, he said, are a direct product of the fire tetrahedron: flashover and backdraft.

“For flashover, assume that an object in a room begins burning, and superheated gases are unable to vent out from the room, so they collect towards the ceiling, because heat rises,” Dr. Owen said. “As they remain and grow, they radiate back into the room. If they continue to do so, the entire room may nearly simultaneously combust. If the gases are able to roll into another space, they can similarly radiate heat that leads to a flash over.”

A flash over is the product of heat and fuel in an environment in which oxygen is present. If oxygen is absent in the environment, a backdraft occurs. According to Dr. Owen, if a fire burns in a closed space, it can burn out all available oxygen. In this scenario, the fire may appear to be burnt out and smoldering. If oxygen is somehow introduced to this environment, though, like if a window or door are opened to allow oxygen in, the fire can reignite.

So what’s the number-one rule for fire prevention?

“If there is a fire, even if it looks like a small fire, call the fire department,” Dr. Owen said. “They are the professionals and experts who can control a fire. They have the resources and training to deal with fire, which are not available to the average person.”

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily