10 dangerous mistakes to avoid during a fire

It's important to know what to do and what not to do in the event of a fire.

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It’s important to know what to do and what not to do in the event of a fire.
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Shutterstock

  • Knowing what to do and what not to do if a fire breaks out or if you are in a burning building can save your life and possibly the lives of others.
  • You’ll want to avoid opening doors if you’re in a building where there is a fire unless there is no other exit. And, if you do open a door, shut it behind you.
  • You should also never move objects that are on fire, as it may cause the flames to spread, and you should never go back inside of a burning building, even if you have good intentions.
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Fires can occur just about anywhere, so it’s important to prepare yourself for them as knowing what to do during a blaze can possibly save your life and the lives of others. It’s also crucial to know what not to do, as making the wrong decision can have serious and sometimes fatal consequences.

INSIDER consulted with fire and safety experts to identify some of the most dangerous mistakes you make during a fire and what to do instead.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is flinging open doors without first checking for a different escape route

When a fire breaks out in a building, most people’s first natural impulse is the correct one – to flee the area. This usually means opening doors to an attempt to find an escape route. Unfortunately, opening a door (especially one that’s warm to the touch) is one of the worst mistakes you can make during a structural fire.

“If fire is on the other side of a door preventing you from escaping, one of the worst things you can do is open the door. Fires need oxygen to sustain itself and opening the door provides oxygen flow [which] exposes people to dangerous heat levels and toxic carbon-monoxide gas,” Steve Kerber, director of the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute, told INSIDER.

Though they may end up eventually catching fire themselves, even wooden doors can act as effective short-term barriers against flames and oxygen flow. Rather than immediately flinging open a door, first check for alternative exits into rooms where the flames have not yet spread or try to escape through a window if it is safe to do so.

In addition, when in any building or when moving into a new home, you may want to plan ahead by carefully mapping out and memorizing emergency escape routes to use in the event of a fire. If possible, this plan should include at least two ways to escape from each room should a fire break out – some of these emergency exits may include windows onto a neighboring roof or collapsible ladders from second-story windows.

But if you must open a door to get out of the building, don’t forget to shut it behind you

We know that you should always try to avoid opening doors during a fire, but what should you do if the blaze started in the room you are in or there are no other escape routes?

“If you need to escape through an open door, remember to close the door behind you so that oxygen from other rooms doesn’t further fuel the fire,” said Kerber.

New York City firefighter Christopher Doyle also told INSIDER that closing doors as you leave a burning area can make a huge difference for arriving firefighters.

Leaving doors open can create wind conditions that make fighting fires more dangerous and can quickly help small fires to grow into massive blazes. Be sure to close every door you open as you escape.

Never break windows in an attempt to give those trapped in a burning building some fresh air

The thick smoke generated by a building fire can quickly overwhelm and asphyxiate anyone trapped inside, so you might believe that breaking an exterior window would help people inside breathe more easily. This is usually a bad idea, particularly in the event of a house fire.

“In a house fire, don’t break out the windows thinking you might give the trapped occupants more air – it only increases the fire’s development and intensity,” David Icove, fire investigator and professor at the University of Tennessee’s Tickle College of Engineering, told INSIDER.

The best thing you can do for anyone inside a burning structure is to immediately call emergency services and be ready to tell firefighters the number of and location of any people who may be trapped inside.

Don’t try to move a cooking pan that’s caught fire

If a pan is on fire, don't pick it up.

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If a pan is on fire, don’t pick it up.
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Shutterstock

It should come as no surprise that many house fires start in the kitchen. The combination of flammable oils, heat, and open flames can lead to fires igniting in pots and pans. If this happens, it’s important to resist the urge to move the flaming pan.

“For cooking fires, do not take a flaming pan from the stove and run outside to discard the pan. This is very common behavior and usually causes the fire to spread by spilling burning grease,” Zack Zarrilli, firefighter and owner of SureFire CPR, told INSIDER.

Attempting to move a flaming cooking pan or dousing it with water can also cause second-degree and third-degree burns to the hands, arms, and legs of the cook as hot grease splashes out.

Instead, place a lid or metal cookie sheet over the pan and turn off the heat source. This should smother the fire. Only remove the lid once the pot or pan has cooled completely to ensure the fire does not rekindle. If it’s a small grease fire, try dousing it in a lot of baking soda as it may help extinguish the flames.

If these methods don’t work, use a fire extinguisher or call your local fire department for assistance.

If your clothes catch fire, try not to run or flail around

If your clothing catches fire, you may be tempted to run or flail in an attempt to put out the flames. Unfortunately, this is potentially the worst thing you can do in this situation, as moving around only fans the flames and can cause the fire to spread more rapidly across your clothing. You may also bump into other objects or individuals, which can further spread the flames.

Instead, the Red Cross recommends that you “stop, drop, and roll.” Stop moving, drop to the ground, and repeatedly roll over the flaming area until it is extinguished.

If possible, don’t run or walk through a burning room

Fire is certainly dangerous, but so is the heat and smoke it generates. According to Ready.gov, room temperatures in a place with a fire can be 100 degrees Fahrenheit at floor level and these temperatures can rise to 600 degrees Fahrenheit at eye level.

If you try to stand in a burning room without protection, the air you breathe may burn your lungs and your clothes may melt onto your skin. As if that weren’t bad enough, smoke inhalation during a fire can cause you to experience carbon-monoxide poisoning, which may cause confusion or loss of consciousness.

If there is a lot of smoke around you as you try to escape, stay as low to the ground as you can. If possible, drop to the floor and quickly crawl toward an exit. Visibility will typically be best near the ground, as smoke will rise toward the ceiling.

Never use an elevator during a fire

If there is ever a fire in a high-rise building, you should always opt to exit using the stairs. During a fire, elevators can malfunction, be disabled, and experience electrical issues. Plus, they can get stuck or even open up on the floor where the fire is occurring.

Simply put, using an elevator during a blaze isn’t always possible and it also comes with a lot of risks that aren’t worth taking. When in any building, especially one where you are on a high floor, always locate the emergency exits and stairwells that you can use in the event of an emergency.

When using a fire extinguisher, don’t aim at the middle or top of the flames

You'll want to aim at the base of the fire.

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You’ll want to aim at the base of the fire.
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Shutterstock

It’s a great idea to keep a fire extinguisher handy in any home, especially near areas where you may work with heat or electricity, such as a kitchen or workshop. It’s also important to know how to use one correctly.

“The most common mistake people make when using an extinguisher is aiming too high, at the top of the flames. Aim low at the base of the fire to be most effective,” Zarrilli told INSIDER.

When using a fire extinguisher, pull the pin, aim at the base of the flames, squeeze the trigger, and sweep from side to side. Think of it like trying to kill a weed by snipping the top; if you don’t attack it at the roots, it will just grow back.

If you keep fire extinguishers in your home, remember to have them checked regularly to ensure they are in working condition. They should be replaced every few years, per Real Simple.

Don’t try to fight a fire on your own

According to Ready.gov, a small house fire can become a major blaze in less than 30 seconds. And in just 5 minutes, a fire can overwhelm an entire building. If you can’t immediately put out the fire while it is very small, get out of the building and call emergency services.

“Do not attempt to put the fire out yourself. Each second increases your likelihood of smoke inhalation. Stay low and leave the fire area as quickly as possible,” Doyle told INSIDER.

This applies even if you have a fire extinguisher – if you spray a small fire and it doesn’t immediately die down, the safest option is to drop the extinguisher, leave the area, and call for help if you haven’t already. When using an extinguisher, always make sure you have your back to a usable exit and everyone else in the area has already moved to safety.

Read More: We asked 2 disaster experts about their best tips in case of emergency

Never run back inside a burning structure, even to rescue others

It may be difficult to remember in a scary situation, but one of the worst things you can do during a fire is reenter a burning building for any reason. This includes going back in to rescue a loved one or beloved pet.

“If your house is on fire, you should not go back in under any circumstances. If there is a pet or something extremely valuable inside, wait by the curb and direct firefighters as to where to go,” said Zarrilli.

It can take mere seconds for someone to become overwhelmed by smoke or heat and lose consciousness and you put yourself at risk for those things when you go back inside of a burning building.

That said, re-entering the place can actually further endanger trapped loved ones and first responders, as firefighters will then need to spend additional time inside the blaze trying to locate and rescue you, too.