Thursday, September 5, 2013

Fire! Fire! Fire! Now What?

With huge thanks to Will Anderson, Senior Fire Inspector, Whatcom County, we enjoyed an informative and provocative session on September 3, 2013.

Fire and water can be considered the most damaging of natural resources to assets owned by common interest associations and their investors. Water is insidious and not always visible immediately. Fire, however, is unmistakable and requires immediate attention.

As owners of residences in common interest communities — and of commercial spaces — we owe a higher obligation to our community to be vigilant when it comes to fire. Common sense dictates that associations lead smoke detector testing and regular battery replacement efforts. As well, inspections of gas appliances, including gas fireplaces.

Educating residents about fire, and smoke detectors in particular, is also key. One resident who set off smoke detectors in her unit while cooking simply smacked the detector with a broom handle, thus knocking it off the ceiling and disabling it, then continued to live there with her family — and her neighbors — essentially smoke-detector-less.

Boards who lack this sense of leadership can be said to fail their communities, based on the state law that requires boards to protect association assets and the community.

Here then, details from our session.

Thirteen Separate Fire Departments in Whatcom County

Will reported that there are 13 fire departments in Whatcom County, with staffing vagaries differing among those located on the ‘east side’ and the ‘west side’ of the county. What this means is that every association is charged with calling their local fire department and working with their local authority to assure that the association’s assets are known, visible, locate-able and available to the department as required, in order to respond to a fire.

Forty-Three Separate Water Districts in Whatcom County

Contact your local water district to verify that hydrants are flushed regularly and that there is access to water within a reasonable distance from your property. There are some small districts with access to only well water. You can expedite putting out a fire if you know in advance that it is necessary for the fire department to haul the water to the event.


You know the layout of your buildings, roadways and property: Firemen do not. When you see firemen ‘standing around’ in front of a fire, often they are deciding as best as they can how to get in, how to get out, how to address the fire, how to ascertain all the data points necessary in order to fight a fire, save lives and not die themselves. That’s dramatic, but it’s true.

One option for an association is to prepare a pre-fire plan. This plan includes an overhead view of each floor showing all exits, for example. In addition, you can document:
·         Stand-pipe locations, if any — and physically mark them.
·         Sprinkler system schematics — tanks, valves.
·         Fire hydrant locations.
·         Master key boxes, if any.
·         Gate codes, if any.

Then, on the property, label every building with visible numbers that can be read at night. Identify unit numbers, too. There can be blue road reflectors embedded in front of hydrants. Lacking the details above about the property, you may lose a gate, front doors and so forth — which you’d prefer to losing lives.

Be mindful of where you stow your garbage, including recycle-able materials. Arsonists prefer to find easy targets: locations where the only equipment they need to bring to satisfy their need is a match. Cardboard recycle and plastic recycle materials are especially interesting to arsonists. Stow them away from buildings and so that they are not easily accessible.

Smokers who pitch butts into planters in front of the exit/entry door, or into the beauty bark around the building cause fires. Offer exterior ash trays that smother cigarette butts, and service them regularly. Move beauty bark a foot away from buildings, and insert stones in the bare patches.

If your tree branches droop lower than about 10 feet from bushes, or other flammable material, this means that fire can travel up through trees, then jump to other trees. You’ve seen in forest fires, how quickly and with enormous devastation how fires travel through tree tops. Prune your low-hanging branches.

Where possible, give your building a three-foot fire-break distance between combustibles and the building.

If your locale permits fireworks, as much fun as they may be, they are also a major fire hazard. Be prepared to offer water-filled buckets to revelers, and watch for flying, burning matter landing on roofs. In Whatcom County during 2012, millions of dollars’ worth of real estate was burned up by fireworks. Check your local municipality for fireworks periods and publish them to your residents.

If you use surveillance equipment, buy the best that the association can afford. Test it to confirm that the video results are usable.


Smoking, cooking and candles are the primary fire starters in residences. Also be aware of using gas appliances and electricity.


Smoking may not be allowed in common areas in your community. But unless your community is a non-smoking community, people will smoke within the homes. Most smoking-based fires are started by smokers who smoke in bed. Will explained that our modern furniture materials are significantly more combustible than were those used in homes 50 years ago. Today, you may have up to one full minute to evacuate a burning room: 50 years ago, you had several minutes — simply based on the combustible nature of the furnishings.


Will’s Number One guideline is this: Never leave your cooking fires unattended. When, however, one occurs, if it is small enough, wet a towel, wring it out, expand it and smother the fire. This action takes courage, quick thinking and common sense. Never use powder — it may combust. Never use water — that may spread the fuel.

Even electric appliances can start fires. Keep your eyes open for recalls — check out the history of that electric appliance you bought at a garage sale.

No amount of heroic action is worth your life. When the fire is out of control, get out.


Be vigilant in your use of candles. If you must use them, put a substantial base under any glass container, so that if it breaks because of the heat, the wax and flame won’t spread onto the furniture or floor. A ceramic bowl is suggested, one large enough to contain the liquid in the candle mass.

Gas Appliances

Other elements include gas appliances, including gas fireplaces. Bring in inspectors and service personnel on a regular basis, to inspect and service interior gas equipment. Ask your association to mandate these services and inspections and add the cost to the budget. Look at the vent for the fireplace on the exterior. Is there a hood that deflects the heat away from the building? If not, this heat can dry out the wood and thus lower its ignition point.


Don’t use electric extension cords. Don’t use plug multipliers. Throw them away. Their manufacturing standards are not adequate to prevent fires. Use power strips instead, those with true breaker-switch capability. When you feel power cords that are hot or warm, those are signals that there is fire potential there. You can use two power strips in one electrical outlet with two fixtures. No more. You can detect excess heat in electrical outlets if the colour of the outlet is brown or black. This may signal electric overload inside the walls.

Be aware that if Jacob, the handyman, who is not licensed, bonded and insured, inspects or services electric or gas equipment in your unit — or performs gas or electric work for you, your insurance may not cover any fire damage that occurs.

Fire Extinguishers

Finally, if you keep a fire extinguisher, preferably one coded 2-A: 10-B:C. They are inexpensive, not rechargeable and best kept if everyone in the home knows how to use one. Take a class. Mount it on the wall so that moisture does not collect under it and compromise its effectiveness. Keep it up to date.


In preparation for this session, we asked you to view a video showing a propane barbeque fire that took place in Seattle in June 2012. The video lasts six minutes, from the time the videographer could be heard reporting the fire to the 9-1-1 operator to the time the firemen extinguished the flames.

In our county — one of the largest In Washington — we can expect at best an average of ten minutes travel time for the firemen to travel from where they are to the event. In high-density, multi-family housing, any fire will affect more than one unit.


Take the time to discuss this matter within your community. As a board member, you can use this checklist to elevate the protection you offer to your association, which is your responsibility:
·         What does our local fire department known about us? What would they like to know?
·         How does our local water district service fire hydrants near us?
·         Are our stand pipes marked?
·         Do we have a sprinkler system schematic showing tanks, valves, etc.?
·         Does the local fire department have access to our master key box?
·         Does the local fire department have our gate code? Over-ride or emergency code?
·         How visible are our address numbers and unit numbers at night?
·         How visible are the nearest fire hydrant markers at night?
·         How accessible are our buildings through alleys, side roads or main road for fire trucks?
·         Can we pass an inspection of flammable elements around our buildings?
·         How do we engage revelers during fireworks periods, and otherwise be vigilant during these times?
·         What is the status of our surveillance equipment, who tested it last, who is responsible for its maintenance?
·         How and how often do we educate residents about fire potential in units?
·         What action do we take as a board to address smoke detector maintenance, gas fireplace maintenance and so forth?

Please feel free to share this post with friends and family: the tips are excellent and can save lives.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the thorough recap of Will's comments. I was at the meeting and picked up a few more details I think are worth sharing.

    For a cooking fire turn off the stove first.

    Managing balcony cooking is a challenge. The fire code (IFC 308.1.4) states "Charcoal burners and other open-flame cooking devices shall not be operated on combustible balconies or within 10 feet (3048 mm) of combustible construction. Exceptions:
    1. One- and two-family dwellings.
    2. Where buildings, balconies and decks are protected by an automatic sprinkler system.
    3. LP-gas cooking devices having LP-gas container with a water capacity not greater than 21/2 pounds [nominal 1 pound (0.454 kg) LP-gas capacity]."


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