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Plan Ahead To Prevent And Combat Rural House Fires

Rural residents are in a difficult situation. Unless they live next to a river, pond or lake, they won't have a large enough water supply to fight a house fire. They must also keep in mind the distance they may be away from the nearest fire department.

Response time is affected by whether the nearest department is paid or volunteer. Volunteer firefighters must leave their home or workplace, go to the fire station and then respond with fire apparatuses. Paid departments have crews at the station 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Volunteer departments in smaller communities may have staffing shortages, especially during normal work hours. Adjacent departments can be dispatched through the mutual aid system, but they will have greater distances to travel, again increasing response time. In Nebraska, rural fire district boundaries are not always laid out to minimize response times from the primary department's station. In some cases, an adjacent district station may be closer to a specific location.

Even if the fire department does get there in time to prevent a fire from spreading, they still have to develop a water supply to combat the fire. Some fire trucks have large capacity water tenders that carry a minimum of 1,000 gallons of water. These tenders can use a portable drop tank in which to drop their water load. Multiple tenders can then establish a water shuttle to maintain the necessary water supply to attack a rural structure fire. It's not uncommon to pump more than 20,000 gallons of water at a major rural structure fire.

Rural residents with a pond on their property could choose to put in a dry hydrant. This allows the fire department to drop a suction line into pipe and have access to non-contaminated water. Dimensions for building a dry hydrant can be found at a local Natural Resource Conservation Service or University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension office.

Ponds also can be used as a water source, but contaminated water could damage expensive fire pumps. Also, during wet periods getting a pump truck close enough to water to get good flow could prove difficult. The soil may be soft and a 30,000-pound pump truck could easily become stuck.

Another problem facing rural fire departments is access to the farmstead or acreage structures. Non-all- weather country roads, load-limited bridges and long, unimproved driveways make it difficult or impossible for heavier apparatus to make it to the fire ground. Rural subdivisions usually have narrow minimally maintained access streets that cannot support the weight of heavier fire apparatus.

It only takes about 10 minutes for a fire to spread across a home, so rural residents need to know when to get out. A fire fighting crew can get to a rural home only so fast. A small fire can be put out with a dry chemical fire extinguisher, but if the fire is too big to contain, get out of the home.

To prevent a fire, make sure all heat-producing appliances are unplugged when no one is at home. This includes space heaters, electric blankets and coffee pots. Electric wall clocks sometimes provide the ignition source for house fires too. Carbon monoxide detectors are good to have, but be sure to have smoke detectors on all levels of a home that have sleeping spaces. Smoke and heat detectors need to be available and checked regularly. Make sure every family member knows a primary and secondary escape route for each room in the home.

Fires can affect rural residents in unconventional ways as well. Insurance companies give ratings based on the threat of a fire and rural homes, which usually are distant from fire departments and suppression-capacity water sources, have a rating of 10. This is the worst rating possible, and as a result, insurance premiums will be higher. 

By Dave Morgan, UNL Safety Engineer