The news this morning was taken up by the Grenfell Tower fire. There will undoubtedly be lots of enquiries in to just how this could have happened and I predict that a bunch of “managerial failings” will be identified – Tim Newman wrote a post looking at the leadership of the management company and has a link to a rather prescient post from last year on a blog of a community action group.

That, however, is not the subject of this post. The subject of this post is how to ensure that the reader survives natural disasters and fires. This is something that I’ve had some experience with and which I’ve spent a good deal of time pondering.

The simplest way to survive a disaster is to not be there. This means not living in Earthquake zones, near volcanoes, potential avalanche areas etc. This advice is sadly not as practical as one would like since, in fact, almost everywhere is potentially subject to some kind of disaster and pesky things like jobs, schooling and family, not to mention a lack of budget, may mean you have to live or travel somewhere more risky than you would like. However it is possible to rank potential disasters in a location and take them into consideration when picking your place of residence and/or temporary accommodation options. In many cases you will find that you can radically increase your chance of survival just by moving a short distance. Half a mile can make the difference between living in the flood plain and living on a rise above it, for example.

There are two, slightly contradictory, imperatives here when it comes to looking at dwellings. The first is that new buildings are typically far safer than older ones, at least in nations where you can trust the building inspectors – and that (lack of) trust in the inspectors is a telling pointer to places that you should try and avoid. The contradictory one is that buildings that have been around for a century or more are typically going to be in locations that are not subject to natural disasters. The older building might burn down a bit easier from an internal fire but it is less likely to be subject to floods, avalanches, forest fires because it it had been likely to suffer from them it already would have.

The catch to the “newer is better” rule is that new multi-story buildings can have any number of survivability issues that older one or two floor ones don’t. The catch to the “live in a building in an old location” idea is that land use can change. So while the building may have done fine in the last 150 years, if some moron just clearcut the wrong bit of hillside above or stopped clearing the river banks a little downstream it may turn out to be vulnerable. So no matter what take a look at the surroundings, figure out drainage basins (and don’t be in them) and so on. As a general rule half way up a hill is far far better than being in the bottom of the valley, even if the latter is easier to build on because it’s flatter. Also avoid landfill – both the marine variety and the stuff used to level out hillsides.

It is worth considering what your building is built from, and what potential disasters are likely. In an earthquake zone brick is a disaster but, assuming the right foundation, wood is great. If you are more worried about fire then brick or concrete is far better than wood. Bear in mind that interior walls may made from something thin and flamable even if the outside is solid, and that (as may be the case in Grenfell Tower) retrofitting insulation may drastically worsen the flamability of walls and roofs.

Live (fairly) close to other people and get to know them (not saying you need to be BFFs but try not to be total strangers). They can help you (or at least call the fire brigade) when things go wrong. If you really can’t live close to people then work hard on the prepping and self-sufficiency because you have to assume that if the something goes wrong you are the only person who will be able to fix it.

Also, if you live in an area with wild fires try to live on the opposite side of the road to the wilderness with a house in between. Based on my observation of fire fighters in California and the South of France, houses out on their own tend to be left to burn while houses that are next to others will be protected. However since the fire fighters aren’t perfect if your property abuts the wilderness and the fire is in that wilderness then you have a much higher chance of getting a spark burn in your property. The fire fighters will probably put it out but they’ll trash the place while the do.

The next simple tip is to always, always make sure you have at least two ways out that do not connect to each other. Take last night’s disastrous fire. If you look at the floor plan you can see that there was a single central lift and stair shaft. Get that filled with smoke and flame and there’s no way out. On the other hand a building that has a stairwell at each end of a corridor gives you a far better chance to get out since it is a lot less likely that both stairs will be impassable. The same logic applies in other cases too. Living up a long winding track from the nearest road may seem like a country idyll, but if something cuts that track you are in trouble. Remember check both routes periodically to make sure they still work. For example fire-escapes are frequently used as temporary storage by people who live/work next to them and this may be fatal in a fire.

Finally always make sure you have an evacuation plan for most potential risks and practice it. If there is a mass evacuation then typically the ones who get out first do the best so being prepared to leave and knowing how to get out will help a huge amount.