Most fire deaths are not caused by burns, but by smoke inhalation. Smoke inhalation is the primary cause of death in victims of indoor fires. The smoke kills by a combination of thermal damage, poisoning and pulmonary irritation caused by carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide and other combustion products.
Just three breaths of this chemical cocktail could render you unconscious.
As firefighters we are trained to look behind doors. The reason is simple, adults will often crawl to the door taking care to keep below the smoke layer. They then stand up and are immediately overcome. Children are often found in cupboards and under the bed because that’s where they hid.
Dangers of smoke
Smoke from oxygen-deprived fires contains a significant concentration of compounds that are flammable. A cloud of smoke, in contact with atmospheric oxygen, therefore has the potential of being ignited – either by another open flame in the area, or by its own temperature. This leads to effects like backdraft and flashover.
Many compounds of smoke from fires are highly toxic and/or irritating. The most dangerous is carbon monoxide leading to carbon monoxide poisoning, sometimes with the additive effects of hydrogen cyanide and phosgene. Smoke inhalation can therefore quickly lead to incapacitation and loss of consciousness. Sulfur oxides, hydrogen chloride and hydrogen fluoride in contact with moisture form sulfuric, hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acid, which are corrosive to both lungs and materials. When asleep the nose does not sense smoke nor does the brain, but the body will wake up if the lungs become enveloped in smoke and the brain will be stimulated and the person will be awoken. This does not work if the person is incapacitated or under the influence of Drugs and/or alcohol.
Cigarette smoke is a major modifiable risk factor for lung disease, heart disease, and many cancers.
Smoke can obscure visibility, impeding escape. In fact, the poor visibility due to the smoke that was in the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire in Worcester, Massachusetts was the exact reason why the trapped rescue firefighters couldn’t evacuate the building in time. Because of the striking similarity that each floor shared, the dense smoke caused the firefighters to become disoriented.
Fire in the home
Home is the place where you feel safest. But your home is also where you are most likely to die in a fire. Four out of five fire-related deaths among civilians occur in the home. Although homes fires and deaths have been declining, much work remains to be done. The death toll of home fires can be reduced through:
These are some areas of particular concern in home fires.
Smoking materials. Lighted tobacco products — almost always cigarettes — are the leading cause of fatal fires in the home. Typically, abandoned or carelessly discarded smoking materials ignite trash, bedding or upholstered furniture. Most fatal smoking-related fires start in the living room, family room or den, rather than the bedroom. The adoption of standards that require mattresses and upholstery to resist going up flames from a cigarette has reduced the death toll significantly.
Cooking. Cooking fires happen because people walk away from the stove. They get distracted by children, pets or visitors, sometimes forgetting they left food cooking. There is no safe period of time to leave cooking unattended. Cooking equipment is leading cause of home fires and of injuries in home fires (and the fourth leading cause of home-fire deaths). At least two-thirds of these fires involve the range, especially the cooktop.
Typically, cooking oil or other flammable liquids, or fat or grease, is what first catches fire. And two-thirds of home cooking fires started within the first 15 minutes of cooking.
Heating equipment. Heating equipment is the second leading cause of home fires, and third leading cause of home fire deaths. Two out of three heating-related fires can be traced to improperly used space heaters—a category that includes fireplaces and chimneys; and fixed and portable space heaters, including wood stoves. Space heaters (excluding fireplaces and chimney) most often caused fires when something combustible was left too close. Most fireplace and chimney fires were caused by creosote buildup, and could be prevented by regular cleaning.
Candles. Candles’ new popularity has led to growing concerns about fire hazards. Most people say they use candles because they like the scent, and others enjoy the mood they create. But in one out of three fatal candle fires in the home, the candle was used for light because the power was out. In many cases, the power had been shut off.
Arson. Arson, the crime of maliciously and intentionally, or recklessly, starting a fire or causing an explosion. But only about 1 in 20 of the intentionally set fires results in an arrest and only 1 in 50 results in a conviction. Two-thirds of intentionally set fires are never even reported to police, and only rarely do such reports lead to an arrest. Most fire-setters are either youngsters or pyromaniacs; more than half those arrested for arson are younger than 18.