There’s no bad time to talk fire safety

Thursday, April 25, 2019 - 18:12
  • A Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department member surveys a trailer that burned Friday, April 7, 2017 in Chugiak. Firefighters said there were no injuries, but the home was a total loss. (Star file photo / Matt Tunseth)

There’s never a bad time to brush up on fire safety basics — not even during a snowstorm.

That was the message Alaska Fire and Life Safety Public Education Coordinator Virginia Lauer-McMichael delivered to a snow-smallened crowd at the Matanuska Ale House April 17 as wet, heavy chunks of spring snow fell outside.

“You’d be surprised how many people don’t know about fire education,” said McMichael, who previously worked as an assistant chief at the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department and was honored as the 2017 Bear Paw Parade grand marshall.

In her role with the state, McMichael said she travels to communities large and small to spread the message that planning and preparation are key to both preventing and surviving fires. She stressed that people should hold in-home fire drills frequently — even at odd hours of the day.

“Don’t just do it during the day, do it at night,” she said.

McMichael began her presentation by giving a brief history of fire safety in the United States, which was fueled primarily by several deadly blazes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that killed more than 300 people and destroyed more than 17,000 buildings.

“October is National Fire Prevention Week because of that,” she said.

At the turn of the 20th century, McMichael said firefighting professionals adopted a three-tiered philosophy that’s used to this day.

“It all comes into it: engineering, enforcement and education,” she said.

Engineering means designing and building structures with things like reachable fire extinguishers, working smoke alarms, panic doors and firewalls; enforcement entails making sure those things are in place. McMichael said education includes everything from knowing how to exit a building to understanding basic fire safety risks in the home such as cooking and smoking.

Among the things people should do to stay safe include making sure smoke detectors and alarms are working, creating a home escape plan, reducing fire risk by removing debris from around the home, and holding regular fire drills. Cooking fires in particular are a big cause of home fires because people will walk away from the stove “just for a second” and forget they’ve been cooking.

“Don’t leave it, it only takes a second for something to catch on fire and spread,” she said.

Other easily mitigated hazards include candles, barbecue grills and smoking materials. McMichael recommended electronic candles, said people should never grill on wood decks or porches and said it’s a bad idea to extinguish cigarettes in places like flower pots because the roots can smolder and eventually catch fire.

McMichael said several steps should be taken to ensure outdoor fires don’t spread to wildland or nearby homes. Those tips include not burning plastic, drowning fires completely to put them out, keeping an ample supply of water (and a shovel) nearby and never leaving fires unattended. People should also check with the municipality first to make sure burning is allowed that day. The muni’s wWildfire Mitigation page posts daily updates about whether it’s a burn day or not. Yard debris must be disposed of through curbside trash removal, at the landfill or the muni’s wood lots.

Folks can also help prevent fires by keeping their homes free of wood and debris and clearing brush around the property, measures that can mean the difference between losing a home in a wildfire and being able to save the structure.

Fire extinguishers should be kept charged and handy, but McMichael said if a fire spreads people should not fight it themselves and should exit the building immediately and call for help.

“If you have a fire in your home, call 911 right away,” she said.

McMichael said people who want more information about fire safety in Alaska can visit the Alaska Division of Forestry at forestry.alaska.gov or the National Fire Prevention Association at NFPA.org.

After McMichael’s speech, Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce executive director Debbie Rinckey reinforced the need to always be prepared by sharing her story. Rinkey’s home was partially burned in a fire last year, and she said it’s important to understand fire can happen to anyone at any time.

“I just want to say — listen to Virginia,” Rinckey said. “I’ve had experience.”

CORRECTION: Story has been updated to clarify burn piles for yard debris are not allowed in the Municipality of Anchorage.

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