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Q and A: Carol wants to keep her house safe

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Q: You are always writing about rebuilding homes that have been destroyed by fire. What advice can you offer so I can ensure my house is safe?

A: I am going to have to spread the answer over a couple of columns. The first thing is that you need to believe it can actually happen to you. I found the following statistics on the internet.

Between January 1 and 7 this year, firefighters responded to:

578 emergency incidents 
302 vegetation fires 
31 informal structure fires
49 formal structure fires. 

We need to focus on the latter two.

Some of these might have been small kitchen fires but many will have involved the complete destruction of a structure. Think about what would happen to you if your home did burn down.

You would have no roof over your head, no phone or computer to run your life and many family memories and possessions would be lost forever. Check that you are correctly insured – the pain can be soothed somewhat if you have the money to cover your losses. I usually talk only about your building insurance but if your car was in the garage, or you are under-insured on your house contents, how are you going to start over?

Prices are going up and real income is coming down, so please protect your most valuable assets properly. And, of course, your family – shoddy building, a jammed door or even too much furniture could cost someone their life.

The major causes of house fires.

Cooking equipment: Pots and pans can overheat and cause a fire if the cook is distracted.

Heating: Keep portable heaters at least a metre from anything that could catch fire, such as furniture, curtains, laundry and clothing.

Smoking: A smouldering butt can burst into flames if it comes into contact with flammable materials, such as furniture or a duvet.

Electrical equipment: An appliance such as a toaster can start a fire if it is faulty or has a frayed cord, as can an extension cord or a power point overloaded with double-adapter plugs.

Candles: Candles look and smell good but if left unattended they can easily cause a fire. Keep them away from any flammable items. Always blow out candles before leaving a room. I have seen at least three fires that started with a romantic candle-lit bath.

Curious children: Children can light a fire out of curiosity. Make sure you keep matches and lighters out of their reach. Install a smoke alarm in your child’s room and practise a home escape plan with your family. 

Faulty wiring: Inadequate wiring can cause fires.

Here are signs that you might have faulty wiring: 

  • Lights dim when you switch on an appliance. 
  • For one appliance to work, you have to disconnect another.
  • In older houses still fitted with fuses, they blow frequently. In modern homes the circuit breakers trip frequently. To avoid problems down the line, get an electrician in and have everything properly checked.

Braais: Braais are great for an outdoor meal, but should always be used away from the home, tablecloths or plants and tree branches. Keep all parts of the braai regularly maintained and cleaned with soapy water.

Clean any removable parts. If you have an extractor above the braai, or a spark catcher, don’t forget to clean them. A large amount of fat can build up on them and this is a major cause of fires in restaurants. If you have a gas braai, check the gas bottle for leaks before you use it.

Flammable liquids: Keep flammable liquids in your home or garage, such as petrol, paraffin or methylated spirits, away from heat sources and check the labels before storing. Be careful when pouring these liquids. Always wear the correct protective equipment when handling them.

Lighting: Lampshades and light fittings can build up heat if they are very close to globes. Ensure nothing is touching the globe. Lamp bases can become a hazard if they can be knocked over easily. If they are in an area of heavy traffic they should be moved. Check that downlights are insulated from wooden panelling or ceiling timbers.

Bad building: You will not believe the number of fires I have seen where “builders” have put timbers through chimneys or not protected timber close to heat sources. Then there is the use of the wrong type of fire door, or protective items, to prevent the spread

* If you have a question for Don, send it to don@macalister.co.za or SMS only to 0824463859. 

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