Last week, as the Caldor Fire swept through the area around Lake Tahoe, one viral story emerged as a beacon of hope: A cabin that appeared to be wrapped in aluminium foil withstood the blaze. But does that actually work?
What happened in the Caldor Fire?
The San Francisco Chronicle first shared photos of the cabin and its seemingly miraculous survival last week. The paper reported the cabin was one of few to survive the fire in a forested area near Sierra-at-Tahoe, and added that it had drawn comparisons to a baked potato.
So here’s the thing: Whoever owns that cabin didn’t pull out the Reynolds Wrap and get busy as flames closed in. In fact, the aluminium in question was made up of “Fire Shields” from Firezat, a company in San Diego.
Firezat founder Dan Hirning spoke to the Chronicle and explained that the shields have aluminium on the outside and woven threads of polyester and fibreglass on the inside. Users stick them to their properties with staples, and per Firezat’s website, the shields reflect 96% of radiant heat. They’re recommended for use on “all exposed surfaces,” but it’s especially key to cover eaves, which are “a major fire and heat trap.” Walls and wooden decks also need cover, but “even if you just cover the roof and facing walls” you have a better shot of helping your home survive, the site says.
Anyway, Hirning told the paper, “It’s not tin foil.”
So, to repeat: It’s actually not aluminium foil. There’s no need to hit Costco looking for cooking supplies to save your goods in the event of a fire. (But you might consider Firezat, given the great publicity it just got.)
What can you do to prevent or deal with a fire?
If you live in an area prone to forest fires, keep firefighting tools nearby, always dispose of hot or once-burning things — like charcoal — carefully, drown any fires you start, extinguish anything smoking, and obey local laws about open fires.
In the event of forest fires nearby, head to a room you can close off from outside air, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Set up a portable air cleaner, wear a respirator (and ask your doctor if it’s safe to do so), avoid using candles or gas and, basically, check this info sheet.
The American Red Cross has some tips for preventing a house fire: Install smoke alarms on every level of your home, test them every month, change their batteries when necessary, and make a fire escape plan with your family. If a fire does happen, get out of the house and stay out of it. Call for help, but never go back in for anything or anyone.
Are you sure aluminium foil won’t help in a house fire?
Here’s where the aluminium foil compulsion would come in. You might want to save your stuff, which is reasonable, and maybe you saw last week’s viral story and imagined yourself putting foil on your possessions in case of a fire or as one approaches.
The possessions you care most about should be part of your fire escape plan. Keep them together, ideally in a to-go bag. Consider a firesafe, too; they’re designed to withstand infernos. Again, never run into a burning home to get anything. Fire can damage the structure of the building and cause areas to collapse, or you could inhale smoke and be incapacitated. Instead, call for help as fast as you can. Only trained firefighters — with special tools and copious water supply — can help get the blaze under control, maybe saving your belongings or whole house in the process.
The bottom line is there are many ways to prevent and deal with fires, but aluminium foil is not one of them, no matter what some guy said on Twitter. Aluminium foil can withstand a temperature up to 1,220 degrees Fahrenheit (660 Celsius), which is great for cooking, but a house fire can get up to 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit (590 Celsius) in about three and a half minutes and can reach up to 1,500 degrees (815 Celsius).
Here’s a little good news, at least: Your nice jewellery, silverware, silver coins, filing cabinets, pots and pans, and stone furniture might not be destroyed, so once the blaze is totally out, go back and look for them.