NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Do you have an escape plan if you had to quickly flee flames and smoke in your home?
The fast-moving ferocious flames and toxic smoke are a deadly combination when a fire erupts. Fire safety experts say your first line of defense is a working smoke detector, but experts say if you want to get out alive, you need to practice fire drills at home. Those lucky enough to escape infernos say they'll never forget the nightmare of navigating through the danger to get to safety.
"It's like a fog. I couldn't see in front of me. It was just nothing but smoke. I couldn't see anything," said Vanessa Jones, who survived a fire at a multi-story condo near Slidell in 2015.
She and other tenants became trapped upstairs. She said they had to jump at least 10 feet into the arms of emergency responders.
"They made a human chain and they caught me," said Jones.
The State Fire Marshall's Office says fatal fires claimed at least 50 lives in Louisiana last year.
The St. Tammany Parish District 1 firefighter set the stage for a fire demonstration at their burn building to give us a close-up perspective on the dire conditions you would face if a fire started in your home. They lit up wooden palates and hay, and within seconds the flames and smoke spread and darkness descended quickly. They explained what you would see shortly after a fire start burning in a home.
"If the fire is in the same room that you're in, you're going to see a little bit of a flame. You're going to start seeing copious amount of smoke. At that point, the smoke is going to quickly fill that room," said St. Tammany District 1 Fire Chief Chad Duffaut Sr.
On average, firefighters say once a fire erupts, you have less than two minutes to run to safety. One of the first dangers is the rising toxic smoke. Each year, smoke inhalation kills most victims. To stay safe and keep breathing, safety experts urge you to stay close to the ground.
"If there is smoke in the room, you want to be be down low, crawling on the floor. If there is no smoke, you can walk until you get to a location. But you
want to be under the smoke," Duffaut said.
Firefighters say it quickly becomes a fight for your life in the darkness because a fire doubles in size every minute. If it breaks out in a high-rise building, as was the case in 2016 on Canal Street, try to open a window and call for help. But never open a window if you are directly above a room already on fire because fires burn up and out.
"If you do open the window, you could be letting the smoke and flames in exactly where you are," Duffaut said.
Placing towels at the bottom of a door can slow the smoke seeping into a room, but that's only temporary. Inside the burn room demonstration the temperature reach 1,200 degrees at one point. Fire temperatures quickly exceed 1,000 degrees, so fire safety experts stress to be careful what you touch when inside a burning building - especially things like metal door knobs.
"You don't want to touch anything high up for sure. You want to stay down low. You want to use the back of your hand to feel around," said Duffaut.
Statistics show most fatal fires occur at night. Firefighters say surviving in the dark is more difficult because people make mistakes when they're jolted out of their sleep.
"I think most of the time they just panic and they're not use to the situation," said St. Tammany Fire Chief Chris Kaufman.
The St. Tammany Parish Fire District 1 uses a fire safety mobile trailer with simulated smoke to drive home the importance of preparing for the worst. It travels to schools on the North Shore, educating elementary students with fire safety lessons. One of the lessons they stress: Never run back into a building engulfed in flames.
They also believe the best way to prepare as a family is to practice safety drills on how to escape through doors and windows. That way, if you are separated from your family in a fire, everyone knows what to do.
"Well you want to practice where your furniture is, put something across your eyes so you can actually feel your way out. That's going to be a reality,' Kaufman said.
They say to also keep pathways to doors and windows clear because clutter can slow your escape.
They are some of the key steps fire safety experts say will help keep you and your family alive when the unthinkable happens and you have seconds to make the best decision to save yourself and your family. The other key reminder - have smoke detectors and double check to make sure they are working.