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  NWSS Contents
Edition Notes
Table of Contents
Book Order Form
About the Author
Ch. 1: The Dangers fr...
Ch. 2: Warnings and C...
Ch. 3: Psychological ...
Ch. 4: Evacuation
Ch. 5: Shelter, the G...
Ch. 6: Ventilation an...
Ch. 7: Protection Against Fires and Carbon Monoxide 
Ch. 8: Water
Ch. 9: Food
Ch. 10: Fallout Radia...
Ch. 11: Light
Ch. 12: Shelter Sanit...
Ch. 13: Surviving Wit...
Ch. 14: Expedient She...
Ch. 15: Improvised Cl...
Ch. 16: Minimum Pre-C...
Ch. 17: Permanent Fam...
Ch. 18: Trans-Pacific...
App. A: Instructions ...
App. A.1: Door-Covere...
App. A.2: Pole-Covere...
App. A.3: Small-Pole ...
App. A.4: Aboveground...
App. A.5: Aboveground...
App. A.6: Above groun...
App. B: How to Make a...
App. C: A Homemade Fa...
App. D: Expedient Bla...
App. E: How to Make a...
App. F: Providing Imp...
Selected References
Selected Index
  Related Sites
Potassium Iodide Info
Robinson Curriculum
Access to Energy
Anti-Global Warming P...
Civil Defense Perspec...
Nuclear War Survival ...
Oregon Institute of S...

Nuclear War Survival Skills
  Email    Home    by Cresson Kearny 

Ch. 7: Protection Against Fires and Carbon Monoxide


Fire and its consequences probably would be the third-ranking danger to unprepared Americans subjected to a massive nuclear attack. Direct blast effects would be first, covering a large fraction of densely populated areas and killing far more people. Considerably fewer fatalities seem likely to result from the second-ranking danger, fallout radiation.


Firestorms would endanger relatively few' Americans; only the older parts of a few American cities have buildings close enough together, over a large enough area, to fuel this type of conflagration. Such fires have not occurred in cities where less than about 30% of a large area was covered with buildings. 19

In the blast area of Hiroshima, a terrifying fire storm that burned almost all buildings within an area of about 4.4 square miles resulted from many fires being ignited almost simultaneously. Many were caused by heat radiation from the fireball. Even more fires were due to secondary effects of the blast, such as the overturning of stoves. The buildings contained much wood and other combustible materials. The whole area burned like a tremendous bonfire; strong winds that blew in from all directions replaced the huge volumes of hot air that rose skyward from the intense fires.

Lack of oxygen is not a hazard to occupants of shelters in or near burning buildings or to those in shelters that are closed tightly to prevent the entry of smoke or fallout. Carbon monoxide, toxic smoke from fires, or high concentrations of carbon dioxide from shelter occupants' exhaled breaths would kill occupants before they suffered seriously from lack of oxygen.


Figure 7.1 shows a wood-frame house after it was heated for one second by heat radiation from a small nuclear weapon exploded in a Nevada test. This test house had no furnishings, but the heat was intense enough to have ignited exposed upholstery, curtains, bedding, papers, etc. in a typical home.

Heat radiation will set fire to easily ignitable materials (dry newspapers, thin dark fabrics, dry leaves and dry grass) in about the same extensive areas over which blast causes moderate damage to frame houses. The blast wave and high-speed blast winds will blow out many flames. However, tests have shown that fire will continue to smolder within some materials such as upholstery and dry rotted wood, and after a while it often will burst into flame and will spread. The burning automobile pictured in Fig. 7.2 is an example of such ignition beyond the range of severe blast damage.

The number of fires started by heat radiation in areas where blast is not severe can be reduced by whitewashing the insides of window panes and by removing flammable materials from places in and around houses where heat radiation could reach them. Also, occupants of shelters in some homes that would be only slightly damaged by blast could move quickly to extinguish small fires and throw out smoldering upholstered articles before fallout is deposited.

Book Page: 62

Fig. 7.1. Heat radiation charred the paint on this house, which had been painted white to reflect heat rays. The charring instantaneously produced the smoke. However, precautions had been taken to prevent this typical U.S. house from being destroyed by fire, because the test was made to enable engineers to study the effects of blast, rather than fire. The house was demolished by the 5-psi overpressure blast that struck seconds later, but it did not burn.

Fig. 7.2. Thermal radiation from a nuclear explosion entered the car above through its closed windows and ignited the upholstery. The windows were blown out by the blast a few seconds later. However, the explosion was at such a distance that the blast wave was not severe enough to dent the car body.

Book Page: 63

Earth-covered shelters can be protected against heat radiation from nuclear explosions and other causes by painting any exposed wood and other combustible materials at shelter openings with a thick coating of slaked lime (old-fashioned whitewash). The World War II firebombing of Kassel was less effective than were similar raids on other German cities because the roof timbers of buildings had been so treated.20

Figure 7.3 illustrates the effectiveness of a thick coating of slaked lime in protecting a rough pine board against ignition by heat radiation. No flames from the burning logs touched the board. (Before this photograph was taken, the uppermost burning logs of a vertical-sided pile were removed so that the board could be seen clearly.)

Chinese civil defense instructions recommend coating exposed wood with both slaked lime and mud.21 If only mud is available, a coating of it protects wood quite well. If kept damp, a mud coating is even more effective. (Simply keeping all exposed flammable materials damp is helpful.)

In blast areas, cloth or plastic canopies over the openings of expedient shelters usually would be ignited by the heat and certainly would be blown away by even moderate blast winds. If extra canopies and stakes could be made and kept inside the shelter, these replacements could be quickly erected after blast winds subside and before fallout begins at least 15 minutes after the explosion. If no spare canopies were available, it would be best to keep the available canopies and their stakes inside the shelter, if it were not raining.


Unless forests or brushy areas are dry, it is difficult to start even scattered fires. Dangerous mass fires would be unlikely, except in blast areas where the heat radiation would be very intense. However, people building a shelter would do well to select a shelter site at least as far away from trees as the height of the tallest tree that could fall on the shelter because of fire and smoke hazards in dry weather, and because digging a shelter among tree roots is difficult.

Fig. 7.3. Heat radiation had ignited the flaming half of the board on the ground, while the half near the shovel-painted white with a thick coating of slaked lime-had not even begun to smoke.

Book Page: 64


Figure 7.4 pictures the same house shown in Fig. 7.1 after it had been struck by the blast effects of a small nuclear test explosion at the 5-psi overpressure range. (If the house had been hit by the blast effects of a multimegaton weapon, with longer-lasting blast winds, it would have been wrecked about as completely at the 3-psi overpressure range. At the 3-psi overpressure range, the blast winds from an explosion 1000 times as powerful as the Nevada test explosion that wrecked this house would blow 10 times as long. This longer-duration, 100-mph blast wind would increase the damage done by the blast wave. The 3-psi overpressure range from a 20- megaton surface burst is about 10 miles from the center of the crater, and from a one-megaton surface burst, about 4 miles.6)

If the blast-wrecked house shown in the illustration had had a furnace in operation when it was demolished, the chances of its being set on fire would have been high. In Hiroshima many of the first fires resulted from secondary effects of blast, especially the overturning of stoves, and not from heat radiation. Although the air burst produced no fallout, firefighters from undamaged, nearby communities were unable to reach most of the burning areas because of blast debris blocking the roads. Later they were kept from burning areas by the intense heat. Some water mains were broken, which made water unavailable for fire fighting in certain areas.

In the event of an attack on the United States employing many surface bursts, fallout would prevent fire fighting for days to weeks in a large part of the most populated regions.

The basements of many substantial buildings will withstand 5-psi blast effects and can prevent occupants from suffering serious injuries from blast. Most home basements can be reinforced with stout boards and posts so as to give good protection against blast effects up to considerably higher than 5 psi. But considering the dangers of fires in probable blast areas, it is safer to build an earth-covered shelter well removed from buildings than it is to seek protection in shelters inside buildings.


If an undamaged building is burning, people inside may be killed by carbon monoxide, toxic smoke, or fiery-hot air. Tests have shown that even fast-burning, rubble-free fires produce very high concentrations of carbon monoxide. If large-scale fires are burning near a shelter, the dangers from both carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide may continue for as long as 1)2 hours after ignition.22 Therefore, the ventilation pipes or openings of a shelter should not be placed close to a building that might be expected to burn.

In the smoldering rubble of a large test fire, after 24 hours the carbon monoxide concentration was still more than 1% and the air temperature was 1900 degrees F. A carbon monoxide concentration of only 0.08% (8 parts CO in 10,000 parts of air) will cause headache, dizziness, and nausea in 45 minutes, and total collapse in 2 hours.

Fig. 7.4. Unburned wreckage of the same two-story, wood-frame house pictured in Fig. 7.1 after being wrecked by the 5-psi blast effects of a small nuclear test explosion.

Book Page: 65

Realization of carbon monoxide dangers to persons in simple fallout shelters and basements may have led the writers of Soviet civil defense publications to define the "zone of total destruction" as the blast areas where the overpressure exceeds 7 psi and "residential and industrial buildings are completely destroyed ... the rubble is scattered and covers the burning structures," and "As a result the rubble only smolders, and fires as such do not occur." 23 Smoldering fires produce more carbon monoxide than do fiercely burning fires. Whether or not the occupants of basement shelters survive the direct blast effects is of little practical importance in those blast areas where the rubble overhead burns or smolders. So in the "zone of complete destruction," Russian rescue brigades plan to concentrate on saving persons trapped inside excellent blast shelters by the rubble.

About 135,000 Germans lost their lives in the tragic city of Dresden during three days of firebomb raids. Most casualties were caused by the inhalation of hot gases and by carbon monoxide and smoke poisoning.20 Germans learned that when these dangers were threatening an air raid shelter, the occupants best chance of survival was to run outside, even if the bombs were still falling. But in a nuclear war the fallout dose rate may be so high that the occupants of a shelter threatened by smoke and carbon monoxide might suffer a more certain and worse death by going outside. Instead, if they know from instrument readings and their calculations that they probably would receive a fatal dose before they could reach another shelter, the occupants should close all openings as tightly as possible. With luck, carbon monoxide in deadly concentrations would not reach them, nor would they be overcome by heat or their own respiratory carbon dioxide before the fire dangers ended.

Dr. A. Broido, a leading experimenter with fires and their associated dangers, reached this conclusion: "If I were building a fallout shelter I would spend a few extra dollars to build it in my backyard rather than in my basement, locating the intake vent as far as possible from any combustible material. In such a shelter I would expect to survive anything except the close-in blast effects." 22

This advice also applies to expedient shelters built during a crisis.

Book Page: 66

Copyright 1999 Nuclear War Survival Skills

Comprehensive Potassium Iodide Anti-Radiation Pill FAQ with up-to-date iodine sources listed & prices
compared for Potassium Iodide (KI) tablets, Potasium Iodate (KIO3) pills, and all forms of protective iodine!