by Dan Hosfeld
There are many challenges yet also many opportunities when it comes to off grid fire protection. This has been emphasized more than ever this past year with the horrific forest fires and devastation that occurred in California and British Columbia. When you live off the grid in a remote area, it’s tough to flat out impossible for firefighters to reach your property. So it’s up to you to do what you can when it comes to off grid fire protection.
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There are two base areas of concern when it comes to fires and off grid homes. First, what can you do inside your off grid home to protect against and prevent fires?
Secondly, what you can do outside your off grid home? This first of two articles will focus on the interior of your house. The companion article for exterior home fire protection when you live off grid will be out next week.
Why You Need an Off Grid Fire Protection Plan
There are three main reasons I see to be prepared for fire situations. Although I am sure you could each come up with your own justification, these are where I see the value. They are as follows:
The first of course being the protection of life. The second being emotional (lesser degree than the first) and the third being financial considerations.
To Protect Your Personal Property
I do not believe we need to justify the protection of life in this article so we will move on. The second item as an emotional response has to do with the loss of possessions. Although insurance (at least for those who have it) covers loss of “things” it does not help emotional attachment. These are the personal possessions that include items such as:
- Personal VHS, DVD’s, old 8mm, Super 8, etc.
- Electronic pics and videos
- Personal records and files
- Souvenirs from trips
- Treasured baby items
- Collections such as comics, baseball cards, etc.
- Family historic items such as marriage certificates, bibles, property deeds
- Personal jewelry
- Wedding rings
- Treasured guns
- Credit cards
- And other personal items with sentimental value.
The emotional impact of losing items with sentimental value can be devastating. Unfortunately, these are the things that many people don't give much thought to. Most of us (me included) have the “it won’t happen to me” mentality. It’s understandable yet if you are reading this, you are heading in the right direction.
To Reduce Your Financial Risk
So let’s look at the financial considerations. We all know that fortunately (or unfortunately) we gather many possessions throughout our lives. These are the things that we take for granted. I say take for granted because who among us hasn’t just said: “oh, it’s fine, we have insurance”. This sounds fine when you say it, yet there is so much more involved if you require it. Not to mention how much money is truly vested in our day to day gatherings. How many of us know what possessions you have?
Why To Inventory Possessions in Your Off Grid Home
Even if you don’t have homeowners insurance, inventorying your possessions is a good exercise in getting an idea of exactly what you’d have to replace should you experience a fire. Aside from the practical aspect of knowing what you’d have to buy, it can give you a basis to work out rough calculations of the financial replacement costs. And that alone could be enough to convince you to get serious about off grid fire protection.
Try this. Sit down right now while you are calm, and try to list what you** think **you have. I emphasize the word calm since you won’t be in that state of mind if there really was a fire. This is not a wasted exercise because whatever list you start, you can expand to try and get an accurate inventory. I say expand because you will find the best memories out there, will do well to even cover half of what you own. And that is not even trying to remember each item of clothing you have.
Try a Video Inventory of Your Cabin Contents
Once you complete such exercise, try taking it a step further. Once you see how little you have recalled, it is best to get out your camera or video recorder. You can then photograph, or video record your possessions. You can then send a digital copy to your own email. I recommend you do this for the simple fact that you can access it if needed. How many times do people try to keep a good inventory, only to lose such records in the very fire they were trying to prevent?
We have gone through the reasons for fire prevention so let us now move forward with how to mitigate risk if there is a fire. Part of this exercise helps determine the fire risks in your off grid home. This helps set out the first steps of prevention.
7 Ways to Mitigate Fire Risk in an Off Grid Home
The best ways to protect your off grid home from fires that start indoors is with preventative measures.
#1. Minimize Kitchen Fire Risks
I say kitchen yet it can be any room where you are preparing meals. In Canada, research shows that most preventable house fires start in the kitchen, living room, or bedrooms.
Sometimes at our house, you would swear that the smoke detector is a timer. And for the record, I hope my wife isn’t reading this because then the pan might become a weapon.
Another statistic is that a majority of these “kitchen” fires occur around the holidays. Particularly Christmas, Thanksgiving and even Easter can be a dangerous time. This is when there is a mix of cooking, drinking and all around partying. This can, unfortunately, lead to forgetting about what's cooking.
That is where having an open concept home with an open kitchen and living area can be advantageous. You can still participate in the festivities and watch the cooking. There are also more eyes, and noses, to tell you when something might be amiss. This is also the time to be proactive about keeping flammables away from the stove. This includes aprons, oven mitts, and towels (paper and cloth), curtains or just about anything flammable.
It's also prudent to keep a fire extinguisher nearby.
#2. Practice Fire Safety With Off Grid Home Heating Sources
While kitchen fires are where most house fires originate, several studies from the United States and Canada report that heating appliances cause the most house fire deaths.
And many of these were reported as being the direct result of a clogged chimney. Heating appliances are varied from wood and pellet stoves to kerosene lamps and heaters, to electric heaters and baseboards as well as propane heaters. Many such deaths, not surprisingly, occur during the winter and more specifically from December to February.
Not only do you risk a serious fire, but many deaths are also attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning. This occurs from both poor combustion and many a propane heater that is poorly ventilated. Many people try to save money by installing equipment themselves, and off gridders are great at this. The main point though is if it is outside your expertise, hire someone qualified to prevent future tragedy.
When using any heating appliance, ensure you keep all flammables at least three feet away. Please note that this includes you. Trust me; I understand the last one very well. Unfortunately, I still have to be close to feed the woodstove. Get a couple of flame retardant gloves to assist loading wood. One of the best investments I have ever made.
#3. Be Mindful of Overloading Electrical Equipment in Off Grid Situations
Electrical equipment is any appliance in your home with a plug or hard wired. Wires can get frayed without you realizing it. If you run many extension cords this is problematic. Not only are they an electrical hazard they are also a trip hazard. Consider getting an electrician to add more outlets in breakers if this is you. Overloading an outlet is a major cause of electrical fires.
#4. Safe Candle Use for Heat and Light
Are you a fan of scented candles? Or maybe you use candles as an alternate light source in your off grid home. Yet they're also a common cause of fires. If possible, minimize your candle use as part of your off grid fire protection plan. Now I know this may be easier said than done. It used to be that we were told to keep candles in case the power went out. It's a different story these days.
Flashlights and electric torches are commonly suggested alternatives for candles during blackouts. And a great addition to your off grid household is headlamps. These are inexpensive and prove invaluable around the property. They free up your hands while directing light to where you need it. We use rechargeable batteries around our house.
However, if you can’t really avoid using candles, make sure that you always place them securely on a flat, level surface. Keep the candles at least one foot away from anything flammable. If possible, buy candles inside a glass container that have a lid to close when you snuff out the candle.
#5. Careful When Smoking
Although smoking is frowned upon for health issues, it's also a fire risk. Many a fire has taken a life from someone falling asleep smoking. The same holds true for carelessly discarded butts. These can easily be thrown in the trash with embers still hot.
The most important thing to remember to avoid house fires when it comes to smoking is to smoke outside. Make sure to use ashtrays and avoid throwing cigarette butts and ashes on plants. Also, avoid throwing butts onto the grass which can quickly start a fire that rages out of control. Before throwing cigarette butts away, make sure that you have put out the flame completely.
#6. Educate Your Children on Fire Safety Off The Grid
For those families off the grid with children, make sure everyone is well-versed on a fire escape plan. And it's also important to understand that house fires can easily be caused by curious children with access to matches or lighters. It seems to me that many of our friends living off the grid (and ourselves as well) homeschool our children. Yes, they’re at home all day, working beside us and actively learning the life skills they need to live off the grid in a remote area. If your kids are anything like ours, they’re very curious. And fire can hold a particular attraction for some kids.
Generally, children learn about fires watching their parents cook. This is the best time to teach children about fire safety and the dangers of fire. Aside from educating them, it is also good to have additional safety measures such as keeping all lighters and matches out of sight and reach of children. At least until they’re at an age where you determine they understand fire safety.
Living off the grid usually means living in a remote and "hard to get to" location. And for many of us, that's part of the appeal. Yet it also means we have to be more self-sufficient and take steps to minimize the chance of preventable fires in our off grid homes.