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Posted on: June 29th, 2020 1 Comment

Greetings everyone, Oscar the Grotesque here, joining you for another week to look more closely at Adirondack architecture, historic buildings, and preservation opportunities.

The recent fire at White Pine Camp and last week’s fire in Ausable Forks, which completely consumed a 1920’s home, injuring the occupants has me thinking about fire safety and prevention in Historic buildings.  Fire does not respect historic buildings. Wood tends to be drier and more brittle quite often in older buildings, so they do tend to be tinderboxes for the most part. Yet property owners can be proactive. This week we are going to discuss some potential fire risks and prevention strategies — some of which can be done for little to no cost.

Prevention is the best approach to protecting properties from life-threatening and ruinous blazes. That includes checking electrical systems, being smart about other potential risks, and employing proper renovation techniques. Having good detection and suppression systems and a fire escape plan also is vital.

Electrical hazards

Electrical issues are the number one cause of fires in historic buildings. An Insulation Resistance Test can be performed by a licensed electrician to identify potential hazards. It is recommended this test be done every five to ten years

Electrical fire prevention tips:

  • do not overload circuits;
  • do not put cords or wires under rugs in high traffic areas;
  • professionally repair or replace outlets that sputter or emit an odor;
  • turn off, then replace or repair, appliances that are overheating or have unusual smells, shorts, and sparks;
  • and use safety caps to cover unused outlets, especially when small children are present.

Heat hazards

It goes without saying leaving any open flames and other heat sources unattended is always a risk for fire. Fireplace flues should be kept clean, and common sense should be employed. What is in your basement? Attic? Are materials such as paint and gasoline stored in a well-ventilated space? Do you have gas or propane hot water heater or other appliances? Make sure the areas around these units are free from “stuff” and any combustible materials and conduct routine maintenance checks.

Don’t smoke inside, and don’t leave grease on the stove and have a working fire extinguisher, particularly in the kitchen for potential grease fires.

Are you starting that restoration or renovation project? When working on a building, you want to use construction techniques that minimize open flames. If they are, positively necessary, you want to use extreme caution and diligence with a fire extinguisher on hand. A significant hazard is using an open flame to get paint off of woodwork. There are other techniques using abrasion and chemicals that may be better suited for your particular project.

Wood Stoves and Chimneys

A very common cause of fires is the improper use of wood stoves and fireplaces. Ensure that the stove and chimney are properly installed, cleaned at least yearly, and always used appropriately and never left unattended.

 Secure vacant buildings

If your building is unoccupied, securing the building to prevent people from entering and potentially causing accidental fires is essential. It also helps to prevent vandalism and animal problems.

Fire alarms and sprinkler systems

The best fire prevention comes from good detection and suppression. Top among them is installing smoke detectors and fire alarms.

New York State Fire Code recommends installing fire detection systems that can be monitored off-site by a service that can dispatch firefighters in the event of an emergency.

Hard-wired detection systems are best, but any fire alarm is better than none. To learn more about the different types of detection systems and were to locate them in your house, read the link here. Many local fire departments will replace batteries of smoke alarms in the homes of elderly or physically challenged people, and offers deaf and hard-of-hearing residents smoke alarm systems that consist of a strobe light, vibrating bed/pillow shaker or traditional audible alarms. Property owners can request some of these services from the Red Cross.

The No. 1 suggestion from fire prevention experts to minimize fire risks in historic properties is to install a sprinkler system. Residential sprinkler systems can be costly and need to be installed with respect and sensitivity to historic fabric, but particularly in remote areas of the Adirondacks being able to suppress the fire long enough for help to arrive can make all the difference in the world to save your house.

Another fire-prevention strategy can involve installing lightning rods. While they do not decrease the likelihood that a building will be struck by lightning, they do provide a direct path to the ground for the electrical currents, reducing or preventing damage. In earlier times, lightning rods were, as a rule, installed on roofs and grounded at a lower level to act as a conductor and divert lightning from the structure

The importance of a fire plan

Should a fire break out, smart strategies are crucial.

  • draw a plan of the building showing all windows and doors and two ways out of every room
  • make sure windows and doors open easily in case of egress
  • pick a meeting place at the front of the building for everyone inside
  • make sure street numbers can be seen by firefighters.

We hope these tips will help you prevent fire in your historic home. We would love to hear your tips and suggestion for fire prevention. Be safe! Oscar  and the staff at AARCH

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One Response

  1. Nancy Pasanen says:

    This is an excellent article! I would like to add that we installed arc fault breakers on our electrical panel as an extra precaution in our 1925 home. We had quite a mess when we bought the house with prior owners having mixed standard copper wiring with aluminum (now removed). I’m going to add the insulation test to our to-do list!

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