Useful Notes: Fire And Explosive Safety

Disclaimer: This page has been provided for informational purposes only. The authors of TV Tropes can take no responsibility for any accidents that may result should you neglect proper training on the assumption that reading this was sufficient.

Fire and explosives/explosions are an action and drama staple in many forms of media. That said, if you follow said forms of media for advice on how to handle fires/flammable or combustible materials, explosions or explosive materials, or emergencies involving them in Real Life, you are likely to end up seriously injured or killed, or facing arrest or a lawsuit for property damage. Tropes such as Hollywood Fire and the Heroic Fire Rescue, Non-Fatal Explosions, and the "coolness" of Stuff Blowing Up (or the idea that the consequences are a mere Ash Face) often lead people to make foolish and dangerous mistakes that can cost lives and property.

This page covers the safe and sane handling of fire and explosion hazards, fire and explosion prevention, and basic tips in handling small fire or explosive emergencies.

The Short Version

  • Fire is far more lethal and fast-spreading than Hollywood Fire suggests. Within two minutes of a fire's starting and burning uncontrolled, an average dwelling's room can be absolutely engulfed in flames. On a day conducive to wildfires or wildfire spread, a single carelessly discarded cigarette or match or a spark from a vehicle can lead to a massive "superfire."
  • The only Non-Fatal Explosions in Real Life are such out of either sheer luck and/or no person being within the explosion radius at the time. Even if people aren't killed, explosion injuries are far more serious than Ash Face - common injuries include amputations, blindness, severe burns, and even people far away can have loss of hearing or ruptured eardrums.
  • Never leave a fire or potential fire hazard unattended. If you are there, you can usually keep anything under control well before it becomes dangerous.
  • If using fire (whether for cooking, heating, or whatever else) always have a means of extinguishing it nearby (whether it be a garden hose for a barbecue or a fire extinguisher in the kitchen or near the fireplace).
  • Knowing what to actually do in a fire emergency or one where explosive dangers are present can save your and others' lives.
  • Knowing how to safely and properly handle fire, combustible/flammable materials, and explosive materials can prevent said emergencies from happening.

  • Before anything else - the most important thing you can do to protect yourself from fire is to have working smoke alarms. In Hollywood depictions, fires somehow always announce their presence or are immediately obvious to all around. While some Real Life fires do this due to the very nature of how they start (e.g. the food you are cooking starts to burn as you are watching it, the leaf pile burn gets out of control) many fires (especially those related to electrical wiring or smoldering ashes or the like) start while people are asleep or out of the room, or they begin so small that they aren't noticed by sight or sound. This is why a working smoke detector in all rooms is absolutely lifesaving and absolutely necessary. Install battery-powered smoke detectors, and check the battery every six months. (Smoke detectors on main electric are a bad idea, as they will not work in a power outage or, in some cases, if the wiring itself is on fire as could happen in a major electrical fire.)
    • One reason many people don't install smoke detectors is their propensity for alarming over things such as cooking food, a lot of smokers in one space, incense or candles, and the like. This can be solved with two things - the cheapest solution while you are in the space is simply to put a shower cap on over the detector, or remove the detector, while you are awake and in the space watching everything - and take off the shower cap or screw the detector back on to its mounts before bedtime/before leaving the room. More expensive modern smoke detectors actually have a timed "turn off" setting - for cooking, or for when there's a couple of smokers in a room for example.
  • Secondly, have a Class A-B-C rated fire extinguisher. You want one in the kitchen and the garage at least, and if you have a fireplace or fire display or space heaters, one in the place containing those as well.
  • The best thing you can do for fire safety aside from smoke detectors, if you own your home, is to have sprinklers installed. Modern sprinklers will only activate when and where there is a fire (e.g. a properly installed modern system will only activate in the room that is actually on fire), and if you are still worried about having things such as electronics or art or papers ruined by an accidental sprinkler activation when there is no fire, you can opt to have a sprinkler-free room for such (though with some electronics themselves being fire hazards, that may compromise safety somewhat), and with some systems, there is an option to leave sprinklers turned off while you are awake and on the property.

Some definitions...

  • Combustible materials are materials that can easily burn. Some can even self-ignite because they produce heat (e.g. oily rags packed closely together, halogen lamps), though the definition covers anything from paper to dry brush to some petroleum products (those that burn fast or long but do not tend to explode, at least in everyday use, such as oils). If it can easily catch fire when exposed to a heat source or flame, it is a combustible material, and you need to use care to make sure it is not exposed to heat or flame, unattended while being exposed to heat and flame if it has to be to accomplish what you need to do (as in cooking) or itself generating too much heat.
  • Flammable materials overlap with (weaker) explosives, in that they or their fumes can instantly catch fire if exposed to heat or flame. Most are petrochemicals - butane is one that anyone who has used a lighter of any sort has seen in action, and gasoline is the most common one in everyday use - it is also a weak explosive (as compared to, say, dynamite) because its fumes are so flammable that, if they are exposed to flame, an immediate explosion and explosive fire will result.
  • Explosive materials will create an immediate or delayed explosion when ignited. Civilian explosives that are the most commonly encountered range from insecticide bombs/foggers, propane, methane, and liquefied natural gas to fireworks, film/stage pyrotechnics, and hobby rocketry equipment.

Fire and explosive response - Hollywood versus reality

  • Hollywood Fire spreads slowly, dramatically, and always slowly enough that everyone (at least, everyone who isn't a Red Shirt) knows of its presence, can easily flee it on sighting it, and is rarely hot outside the flame itself. ABSOLUTELY NONE OF THIS IS TRUE ABOUT REAL LIFE FIRE AND ACTING AS IF IT IS WILL LEAD TO YOUR DEATH.
    • Some Real Life fires do immediately announce their presence and can be safely fought without professional assistance, or while waiting for professional assistance to arrive. These are mostly when a watched source of fire, as mentioned below, gets out of control and when the person watching it has prepared for that possibility with a means of immediately extinguishing it. That said, even in these cases (e.g. fireplace or barbecue or stove fires), if your attempt to extinguish the fire fails and it begins to spread, get out of there and call the fire department/have someone else call the fire department.
    • As mentioned above, fire spreads quickly. In Hollywood Fire, full engulfment and collapse can take hours. In Real Life, full engulfment of a room can take as little as two minutes or less .
    • Smoke, poisonous gases, and heat are far more deadly than the flames themselves - people have died from fires with the flames nowhere near them at the time of their death. Even before a place is fully engulfed in flames (and obviously after it is) temperatures at the level of a standing human being can reach lethal levels of heat, and the poisonous gases and smoke itself can lead to unconsciousness and death.
    • The Heroic Fire Rescue is a very bad idea for precisely these reasons, especially if you've already escaped a fire, do not go back in. Especially for belongings or even pets. Even if you are seeking to rescue another person, the chances of your doing so without becoming another victim and either dying or yourself needing rescue are very low.

Common fire hazards and protecting yourself from them

The most common fire hazards are, obviously, anything that involves a fire or open flame (or burning/ignited object) itself. If you are working with or doing anything that requires fire/open flames/explosives, realize that there is a risk of said fire/explosion getting out of control, and take proper measures to prevent it.

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     Cooking (including stoves, barbecues, and open fires) 
Before you start:
  • Never use any gasoline-fueled stove or lantern (except stoves with a separate bottle) indoors. These devices are for outdoor use only. If they come with a safety pressure release valve, they will fire a jet of flame from that valve if they overheat. If they do not, they will leak or explode if overheated. Gasoline stoves with a separate fuel bottle and kerosene stoves are okay for indoor use.
  • Never, ever, EVER use a barbecue indoors. Even if the flames don't catch something on fire, the smoke will be a problem itself for damaging property, and using barbecues indoors can and will cause carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Make sure your stove surface and immediate area near it is clear of combustible objects other than what you are cooking. Papers/plastics, curtains/towels/other fabrics, or anything else that can burn should not be close to a stove or cooking surface, and don't sit cooking oil or food packaging that can catch fire on/near the stove even if it's more convenient.
  • Keep a stove/cooking surface/cooking appliance clean. Buildup of oil or crumbs can start a fire - this is especially a problem with toasters, toaster ovens, ovens, and microwaves, as many people tend to neglect proper cleaning/debris removal for both.
  • Have a method of reliably extinguishing any fires that do start nearby. For a kitchen, this would be an A-B-C fire extinguisher. For an outdoor barbecue, it would be a garden hose with strong water pressure output.
  • If you have long hair, tie it back, and don't wear anything that could fall into the stove/its flames/burners/heating element such as long flowing sleeves.
  • If using a barbecue or other open-flame method of cooking, make sure it is on a relatively non-flammable surface such as cement or dirt or stone or sand - so if it does tip over or get out of control, the only problem will be ruined food as opposed to a spreading fire.
  • Make sure electrical appliances are in good repair - toaster ovens, toasters, slow cookers, and microwaves that are old or that have defects should not be used, and cords should be in good condition (if there is any wear and tear or sparking, get a new appliance rather than use that one).

While cooking:
  • Never leave cooking food unattended in most cases. You can possibly safely do so with a slow-cooker or pressure cooker if it is in good repair, but otherwise, being there to watch food (especially that cooking on top of a stove or on an open flame/barbecue) will prevent fires and prevent them from getting out of control.
  • If barbecuing, do not add lighter fluid to an already lit charcoal grill (e.g. one that already has flames visible). Those flames may well burn up the stream of fluid and catch that bottle in your hand on fire.
    • Never use gasoline as lighter fluid on a barbecue. For one, it may not even work (if the fumes settle in time and there were no flames yet, which is the best outcome for not having large surfaces of your body burned due to your stupidity), and if it does work, you will have a flash fire and explosion as opposed to a lit barbecue, as well as a likely trip to the hospital with severe burns at best, and be a candidate for a Darwin Award at worst.
  • If cooking with large amounts of combustible material (e.g. deep frying with oil) make sure you are using the right cooking temperature.
  • If food or something it is cooking in begins to smoke or burn, immediately remove it from the heat source if possible and/or turn off the heat source if possible.

If a fire begins:
  • For oven fires, if you smell smoke or burning coming from your oven, do not open it! This will result in a sudden influx of oxygen and a potential flash fire as a result - giving you severe burns and/or setting stuff near the oven on fire. Instead, turn it off and leave the oven door closed. If you actually see flames that do not go out within a minute, call the fire department immediately and spray anything ignited next to the oven (such as cabinetry or flooring that is on fire) with the fire extinguisher as you wait. (Calling the fire department is important for oven fires, just in case the fire got beyond the oven into the wall or nearby wood cabinets or the like)
  • For toaster/toaster oven/microwave fires, follow the same advice - turn it off/unplug if possible, leave the door closed, and if the fire spreads use your fire extinguisher.
  • NEVER apply water to a grease or oil fire. Stovetop fires that don't involve oil or grease or that involve very little (by very little, under a teaspoon of butter or oil) can be extinguished with water/by being thrown into the sink, but anything involving oil or grease to any degree should be extinguished with a Class B listed fire extinguisher and/or by being covered to cut off oxygen to the fire.
  • With barbecues, turn on the garden hose and spray at full volume at the base of the fire from a distance until the fire is extinguished. If the barbecue is a gas barbecue as opposed to charcoal, alternate your spray of water between the tank (to keep it cooled off so it doesn't explode) and the base of the fire, while having someone else call the fire department.

     Open fires/flames (candles to firepits, fireplaces, bonfires, brush burns) and intentional burning/pyrotechnic displays 
  • Do not use candles as emergency lighting. In an emergency/disaster/power outage, there are far more likely to be natural gas or propane leaks (see later), which a candle's flame or lighting a candle could cause to explode. Also, candles in closed spaces such as basements or the like are dangerous fire hazards, and more easily knocked over in such situations. When stocking for emergency lighting, get flashlights and battery-powered bulbs/dome lights for the immediate time, and oil-fueled "hurricane lamps" (which are harder for the flame to escape and burn longer than candles) for the longer term (e.g. if power is not restored after it's safe to light flames again.)
  • If you are using candles for ambiance or decoration, keep in mind the following:
    • Do not place candles where they can be knocked over or spilled by anything. This means do not place them near a window where the wind can blow them over, on a wobbly shelf, or anywhere else they could be knocked over.
    • Do not use candles at all if you have cats or small children in the space the candles are to be used.
    • Do not use candles anywhere the flame can catch fabric, paper, or other combustible material on fire.
    • Beware that the glass part of a glass candle can become very hot - don't sit candles of any sort on a surface that could burn.
    • Never leave a room with candles burning - if you must leave the room, put them out before you leave.

  • If you are going to set an intentional fire such as a campfire or bonfire or burn brush/leaves, or fire off fireworks or firearms, check the weather forecast and conditions first, and make sure that you are legally allowed to do so on your property.
  • If you wish to maintain a fireplace within your home or on your property, please keep in mind that while it may look good, it is a huge risk of a fire getting out of control. Some safety tips are as follows:
    • Consider an outdoor fireplace or fire pit over an indoor one. It can be built in a way that is far safer and easier to extinguish, or even possibly in a way that it can burn itself out.
    • If you have an indoor fireplace, know what fuel is intended to burn in it. A gas log or electrical fireplace may have a very small flue or none at all - and putting wood or other lit items in it can lead to smoke damage at best and to a huge, out of control house fire at worst. Most wood burning fireplaces are set up for 1 to (at most) 4 small logs - packing a fireplace full of logs for a "roaring fire" may well lead to an unwanted damaging fire.
    • Keep anything that can burn well away from the hearth space - including furniture, papers, or combustible/flammable materials, including other kindling or wood.
    • Some woods do not burn safely at all. Pine is probably the best example - it burns very quickly and hot, and burning your Christmas tree or other pine wood in a fireplace is just asking for disaster. If you are burning wood, you need to be sure that it is a kind of wood that does not burn explosively (e.g. very low sap content) and it has not been chemically treated (e.g. particle board, which can release dangerous fumes).
    • Never leave the room while a wood fireplace is in operation. If you must leave the room or the house, extinguish any wood/paper/pellet fireplace fire thoroughly with water first. If it is a gas log/gas fireplace or electrical fireplace, turn it off and stay there for 10 minutes until it cools off if possible before leaving.
    • Put a spark arrestor on your chimney if you burn wood/paper/pellets - this will keep sparks from flying onto your roof and setting your home on fire.
    • Make sure chimneys are professionally cleaned by a chimney sweep every year (burning "chimney sweep logs" does not count!) before use to clean out birds' nests, other objects that have fallen into them, and buildup of creosote and soot from fires.
    • Never, ever, EVER use gasoline, butane, or similarly explosive petrochemicals as a fireplace starter for an indoor fireplace.

  • Don't commit arson by accident (or on purpose, though that's obvious). This seems like an obvious statement, but setting fires or setting off explosions can be a felony criminal offense of arson or of terrorism-related offenses, with all that entails, even if it is your own property and/or even if your intent was "just to have fun," especially if the fire or explosion causes damage other than to its intended place.
    • Setting off fireworks/pyro or starting fires in public areas without permission is almost always asking for being charged with this crime - even if you're only burning tires or a trashcan to celebrate your favorite sports team winning/as a bonfire or setting off a firework in an urban area in a holiday celebration or putting a sparkler wheel in your band's music video. To avoid criminal penalties only set public fires in designated fire pits (e.g. a bonfire pit at the beach is okay as long as it's clearly marked as such) and only use fireworks/other pyrotechnics or fire displays (yes, even stuff like a firebreathing or fire-eating show where you are likely the only person in danger) in public areas if they are legal, and if you are properly licensed and have the proper permits to do so from burn permits to film permits.
    • If you are legitimately using fire beyond a firepit or barbecue, or explosives or pyrotechnics at all on your own property (e.g. razing a building, burning leaves, practicing firebreathing or other pyrotechnic stunts, using fireworks) again make sure you have the proper permits if any are required/that what you are doing is legal, that you have warned neighbors, that firefighters are on standby if possible, AND that you have proper safety precautions in place to prevent fire spread or a stray firework or bottle rocket.
    • Don't light fires or use pyrotechnic displays/fireworks (or even fire firearms) in hazardous fire conditions, or where the fire could easily spread to a wooded or grassy area. Too many devastating wildfires have resulted from this, and if you are found to be at fault for a wildfire, you often will be charged with felony arson. Check the weather forecast, again, for burn bans or high winds, and remember the following mnemonic for safe areas for fire or explosives - CADSSS; cement, asphalt, dirt, sand, snow, stone. If grassy or forested areas are even possibly within landing range of embers from a bonfire/campfire or a landing firework or bottle rocket, it's likely not a good idea to engage in such activities in the area, and having even your barbecue on your wood deck instead of your cement/asphalt driveway is asking for trouble.
    • If you have an interest in fire/pyrotechnics/explosives, there are safe places to explore this - specifically, rocketry or pyro ranges, areas set up for fire pits or burns, or similar.
    • If you have an unhealthy interest in fire or explosives (e.g. you desire to harm others with them, you have a compulsion to set fires for their being noticed/in areas where they are dangerous, you only or primarily gain sexual release from fire) you likely suffer from the mental disorder pyromania (one percent of all people, and 50 percent of convicted arsonists have this disorder), and there is help and therapy available - seek it before you end up harming people or being arrested or both.

     Smoking 
  • Smoking is one of the primary causes of fires. In fact, a large percentage of home fires occur from improperly used or discarded smoking materials (primarily cigarettes and ashes), and an even larger percentage of wildfires occur from them. If you smoke anything from tobacco to other substances, you need to be absolutely careful in regard to smoking materials and debris. Many house fires, wildfires, and car fires result from the improper use of smoking paraphernalia or the improper disposal of burning or smoldering smoking related trash.
    • DO NOT SMOKE IN BED. Many (most) beds and bedding are not fireproof and do consist of lots of fabric that provides both places for ashes to smolder, and for lit or hot cigarettes or cigars or pipes or such to land on if dropped. If you need to smoke something, get out of and away from bed. The same goes for plush or heavily stuffed furniture - if a cigarette or ash could disappear in it, you should probably not smoke while on it.
      • As an extension of this, DO NOT SMOKE WHILE DRUNK. Many, many, many fatal house and apartment fires have occurred because someone who was hammered had a cigarette going and either dropped it without realizing it (and were subsequently too drunk to pick it up) or passed out with it clutched between their fingers. Just don't do it.
    • Use a proper ashtray, or if one doesn't exist, create one with a cup/half full bottle of water for discarding cigarettes and spent joints and the like or a solid, non-ignitable surface (e.g. stone, sand, dirt, ) on which to rest pipes. If you toss out a cigarette or cigar butt, make sure that it will land on cement, asphalt, dirt, sand, snow, stone, or in water. Same goes for a match you've used to light something - it should never be dropped on an ignitable surface.
      • As a secondary note, even if you stomp a cigarette or spent joint out, it still may have hot material inside it. Never discard cigarettes or spent joints/blunts onto carpet or other burnable surfaces, even if you think they are out.
    • When discarding ashtrays, never dump a non-water ashtray straight into the garbage unless it has not been used for 12 hours. If it has been used in that time, wet ashes before dumping into garbage.
    • Keep lighters, matches, cigarettes/cigars themselves, and other smoking materials away from kids and pets - both to prevent their using them/becoming poisoned by them and to prevent fires from being started.
    • Do not light a match or lighter (or carry a cigarette/joint/blunt/pipe lit elsewhere) into any situation where explosives or highly explosive petrochemicals such as natural gas, methane, or gasoline may be present.
      • As an extension of this, don't smoke immediately post disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, or tornadoes. There is a high probability a gas line is ruptured, and if there's any amount of natural gas present, striking a match or lighter will cause an explosion.
    • Do not throw cigarette butts or cigar butts out of car windows, or smoke around forested or grassy areas in times of high winds.
    • Smoking while driving is in general a bad idea if you are the driver - many car fires and accidents when a driver is scrambling to prevent car fires have resulted from cigarettes accidentally dropped inside a vehicle.
    • If you use a device like a vaporizer or e-cigarette that requires charging, make sure you know how to properly charge it, ONLY use the manufacturer's included charger, and heed the time limit for charging. That said, these, if well-made, are generally far safer for fire hazards than cigarettes or pipes due to the lack of externally burning material and lack of ashes.

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