Once human error is reduced, the next step is to examine the fabric of the house and the condition of its appliances. Bad wiring is a common cause of fire in old houses, Jennings says. Knob and tube electrical systems, when in good condition and not overloaded, are fundamentally safe. But many older homes have been subject to an endless variety of bad electrical work over the years; an inspection is always warranted.
Water leaks can cause fires by creating short circuits as moisture hits wires and electrical devices. Old appliances can be risks, as can improperly vented dryers.
Extension cords are an all-too-common source of disaster. Use them with caution; make sure they are appropriate for the task at hand. Putting an extension cord beneath a carpet is incredibly dangerous, and has caused damage or complete destruction to many a historic structure.
Chimneys and wood stoves are another risk. Inspect chimneys annually, especially if they are connected to a wood stove; creosote buildup is a fire hazard mitigated through regular cleaning. Use adequate fire protection anywhere a wood stove is set; check your manual or call the manufacturer for guidelines, which vary by stove. You may need a permit to install a stove; not getting one could create problems with your homeowner’s insurance. Even regular furnaces should never stand alone—they should be surrounded by some type of fire-resistant enclosure, even if only drywall. Keep materials and debris a safe distance away from furnaces as well, at least 36″.
Inspecting chimneys for damage—and keeping them clean—helps prevent fires. (Photo: Nathan Winter)
Because he’s a thoughtful, careful, demanding purchaser, Jennings’ old homes didn’t need many alterations. But one thing he installed immediately was a hard-wired, battery-backup smoke alarm system, which will keep the house safe even during brief electrical interruptions. Every place where people sleep should have a smoke alarm, he says. Kitchens should have an alarm, too, but it should be placed far enough away from cooking surfaces to ensure it isn’t constantly triggered, which can make it a nuisance and tempting to disconnect.
When it comes to alarm systems, Jennings recommends following the National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 72 standard. While wireless installations can reduce the cost and damage of installation, hard-wired systems do better when it comes to power outages and reliability. In hard-wired systems, all the alarms are connected to each other and to a central station, while wireless systems use small radio transmitters to communicate with each other and a central locale. “Wired is always better,” says Tilly, and many building codes require hard-wired installations.
Sprinklers are another useful safety feature, albeit an expensive one. But costs—and damage from installations on historic structures—are far less today than they once were. Major innovations include the use of heat-resistant, flexible plastic pipes (PEX tubing) and high-pressure systems that produce a mist that can suffocate a fire without destroying historic materials. In many areas, sprinklers are only necessary at exit routes and high-risk areas to meet code demands and significantly improve safety. In recent years, states have adopted the International Building Code (IBC), but many have modified the overall regulations to meet the needs of their localities and regions. Check with local authorities before moving forward.
Most experts agree that every historic home should have fire extinguishers in kitchens and anywhere flames are likely to occur. Jennings himself isn’t a fan of extinguishers, because he’s seen homeowners add to disasters by trying to fight blazes themselves. Generally speaking, unless you are trained in the use of extinguishers and have the temperament to keep calm during an emergency, your time is better spent evacuating than attempting to fight fire with a handheld extinguisher.
The Brokaw-McDougall House in Tallahassee, Florida, installed a fire sprinkler system with flexible PEX tubing during renovation. (Photo: Courtesy of MLD Architects)
Unfortunately, despite meticulous preparation, fires can still happen. But some basic planning can make a huge difference in saving lives and preventing injuries if or when a fire occurs.
If you have an historic preservation society, get them talking with the local fire department about minimum-impact firefighting, says Tilly, who recently had to deal with the impact of two fires—one in a community where preservation was a priority, and one where it was not. Though the fires were similar, the damage was exponentially greater in the town where preservation wasn’t high on the radar. It’s possible to fight fires without taking a house apart, and there’s nothing wrong with asking fire departments to use this approach.
Once a serious blaze starts, you have just one to three minutes to safely get out. Always keep low; heat rises, and temperatures at head height can scorch lung tissue. In addition, smoke from a house fire is full of potentially lethal toxins and gases—another reason to stay close to the ground.
In a significant fire, the smoke is usually so thick that visibility rapidly drops to a matter of inches. That’s why some people get lost—and die—within feet of safety. “Fire is destructive, and it’s permanent,” Jennings says. But it isn’t inevitable, especially if you invest a relatively small amount of time and energy in preparation, prevention, and planning for escape.