No one expects to have a fire in their home or workplace, but accidents happen. While fires are frightening and damaging, you can put your mind at ease, stay safe, and minimize damage with some simple facts. Not all fires are created equal, and something that can safely extinguish one may make another one worse. Knowing the different types of fire and how to safely put them out may save your life.
The most important thing to remember is to prioritize your safety and that of other people in your vicinity. If you can't put the fire out quickly, whether because it's too large or you don't have the right tools at hand, focus on calling 911 and evacuating the building. Also focus on evacuation first if the fire has the potential to block your exit or if there are toxic or explosive materials in the area. Remember, damage can be repaired and belongings can be replaced — you can't.
Fires are separated into five classes, with each one given a letter. This system is based on the cause of the fire and the materials providing fuel for it, which impact how it spreads and how it needs to be extinguished. Fire extinguishers are rated using a similar system, although some are suitable for multiple types of fires.
These are some of the most common types of fires and fire extinguishers. Class A fires simply involve common combustible materials, such as wood, paper, fabric, or rubber. For example, if you tip over a candle and it lights your furniture on fire, that's a class A fire. These fires can be put out with water or with an inexpensive foam extinguisher.
Class B fires involve common flammable liquids or gasses. For example, you might experience a class B fire if you use too much lighter fluid while grilling outdoors. Other common fuel sources include butane, propane, solvents, and gasoline. Do not use water on this type of fire, because, as oil and water don't mix, this will primarily spread the fire around along with the water. Instead, use a foam, carbon dioxide, or powder extinguisher on it. You can also smother it if possible; for instance, you may be able to simply replace the BBQ lid until the fire inside has used up all available oxygen.
These fires involve electrical equipment or wiring. Whether a faulty appliance catches fire or there's a short in the wall, it's probably a class C fire. With this type, the priority should be turning off the electricity to the affected area or the entire building. Once that happens, you can put it out like a class A fire. If you cannot be sure the electricity is off, however, you may be able to use a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher, though it's often a better idea to evacuate. Never use water or foam extinguishers to put out a class C fire.
If you run into a class D fire, you probably will already be trained on how to handle it. These fires involve combustible metals, such as magnesium and potassium. They mostly occur in factories and laboratories, although some home hobbyists may have large enough concentrations of them to cause a problem. The only way to safely put these out is by using a dry powder fire extinguisher rated for class D fires.
Class K fires are similar to class B fires, but they're focused more on kitchen grease and cooking oils. This distinction is mostly due to amount of flammable liquid involved, as well as the fact that it's usually fairly contained. Small kitchen fires — class B — can often be put out by simply smothering them using a pan lid or by pouring a large amount of baking soda or salt over it. Larger ones — class K — require a wet chemical extinguisher. Evacuating and phoning emergency response is the safest option.
To make it simple, fire extinguishers generally use the same ratings as the fires they're designed to put out. For example, a class A extinguisher is only suitable for use on class A fires. However, since some types of extinguishers are suitable for use on various types, you may see ones with ratings such as ABC or BC. These are suitable for use on all classes of fire listed on the label. Any time you purchase a new fire extinguisher, make sure you know how to use it, since you may not have time to learn in the moment.
In a typical home, it's a good idea to have at least one suitably rated extinguisher for every floor of the house. If you have a larger home or a more spread-out single level, keeping several strategically placed around is a good idea. Be sure to keep one in the kitchen that is rated for grease fires, since that is the most common room for this type to occur.
It's always a good idea to assess your fire risk and have a plan in advance for what to do if a fire breaks out. Identify all potential exits and make sure they're clear and accessible. Think about the most common types of fire that might occur in that area and be sure you have the right materials to put it out.
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