How to deal with electrical fires

The term 'electrical fire' refers to one of multiple types of fires in which the main instigator is electrical equipment or conduits, such as home appliances, transformers, power points or motors. The most common causes of electrical fires are faulty wiring and the malfunctioning of equipment, outlets, extension cords and light fixtures. Like any fire, they can be exacerbated by hot weather and strong winds. While prevention is obviously the best strategy, it's important to know how to approach an electrical fire if one does unfortunately occur at home or at your place of work.

Unlike more conventional fires feeding on flammable materials like wood and paper, electrical fires cannot be extinguished using water or foam based fire extinguishers, due to the presence of dangerous electric currents, unless the power source is first cut. As such, there are two approaches to consider. One addresses a situation in which you can turn off the power, the other a situation in which, for whatever reason, the power continues to run. In any case, your first step should always be to contact emergency services and ensure you have a route for evacuation if your efforts to stop the fire fail. You should also only try to extinguish fires that are small and evidently containable. 

If the power source can be switched off:

If the power source that initially sparked and fuels the electric fire can be turned off safely, there a number of steps you can take. Importantly, without electricity in the picture, the fire is technically no longer an electrical fire, otherwise known as a Class C fire, as there is no risk of electrocution. Rather, it becomes another type of fire. If it is a conventional Class A fire, you can use a typical water or foam fire extinguisher to put it out.

If, on the other hand, it is a fire fuelled by flammable gases, liquids, combustible metals or a cooking oil, there are other models of extinguishers you have to use. Familiarise yourself with the extinguishers you have access to and what types of fire they are most effective against. If the power source is off and the fire is small and conventional, you may also consider putting it out using an oxygen-cancelling fire blanket or any water you can easily get your hands on. 

If the power cannot be switched off:

If you cannot turn the power off, either because you can't find the breaker box or the box itself is locked, your best bet is either a carbon dioxide or a dry chemical fire extinguisher. These work by taking away the oxygen, heat or fuel elements of a fire and do not put you at risk of electrocution if you use them. Do not try to use a fire blanket as you'd be putting yourself too close to the live electric current. If you do not have these extinguishers on hand and cannot turn off the power, you will need to evacuate and wait for fire emergency services to deal with the blaze. Safety should always be your priority.