You see a fire approaching, engulfing everything in its past as it heads towards your house. Your only chance of survival is to run. Anything you leave behind will be destroyed, so what do you take?
If you’re smart, your most important possessions and documents are in a fireproof bag. While that won’t protect them against the full force of a wildfire, it gives you a little more time before they go up in smoke.
So are fireproof bags worth the investment?
That depends on how exacting you are when doing your research.
Here are some tips to help you keep on the straight and narrow and avoid plunging off the path after some Holy Grail product that doesn’t exist.
What To Look For In A Fireproof Bag
If you want to know which fireproof bags to avoid, head over to YouTube – it’s full of videos showing what happens when you burn a sub-standard fireproof bag.
The following Q$As are designed to give you a clear understanding of what to look for in a fireproof bag and, most importantly, what to expect.
Some Fire Bags Like It Hot – Or Do They?
If you’re not willing to set your new fireproof bag alight to test its level of fire resistance, the best way to figure it out is by checking its maximum external temperature. Anything that says it can cope with fires as hot as 2,000°F is worth considering.
Few fires exceed that temperature, with house fires reaching temperatures of around 1,500°F at their hottest and the average wildfire burning at about 1,472 °F.
The other issue is how long a fireproof bag can survive such intense heat.
In a house fire, a room will burn for up to an hour and fifteen minutes if no action is taken, while most fireproof bags are only designed to withstand such temperatures for around 30 minutes.
To get your valuable documents out of such a situation safely, you need to get water on the fire as quickly as possible, hoping you will have doused the flames before your fireproof bag reaches its point of no return.
Of course, that means you need a waterproof bag; otherwise, you’ll destroy your documents at the same time as extinguishing the fire.
What Materials for a Fireproof Bag?
There aren’t many choices when it comes to fireproof fabrics. You can’t have a fireproof bag made out of asbestos, for instance, or ceramics, even though they are both fire-retardant materials, so your best option will be fiberglass.
The problem with fiberglass is that the fibers used to construct the material can become airborne, irritating the lungs and causing allergic reactions when touched.
To get around this problem, manufacturers coat their fiberglass fireproof bags with silicone. Not only does the silicone coating protect the owner’s hands and lungs, but it also increases the bag’s strength and heat insulation properties.
Don’t get your hopes up, though. Fireproof bags are primarily designed to protect the contents from flames rather than heat.
Although they will provide some protection, surviving for around 30 minutes to two hours in a fire burning at 1,500℉, even the best fireproof bags are little more than fire-resistant.
If you happen to be the guardian of the Rothschild Prayerbook or one of the other most expensive books in the world, a fireproof bag just won’t cut it, and you’ll need to up both your game and your budget to invest in fireproof, safe as well.
Does It Need To Be Waterproof?
Even if your fireproof bag and its contents survive a fire, there’s no guarantee that your documents and valuables are now safe.
Water is almost always used to put out fires, yet when buying a fireproof bag, few people stop to consider whether or not it’s also waterproof. If not, you’ll lose your documents to water damage seconds after saving them from incineration.
If a fire bag is correctly insulated against flames and heat, you’d expect it to be water-resistant, if not waterproof, but that isn’t always the case.
For instance, a fire bag that relies on velcro fastenings won’t be waterproof after surviving even a few minutes in a fire. Velcro often relies on nylon or polyester hooks to close, and these can only withstand temperatures of around 280℉, so after a minute or two of direct heat, they will no longer be effective.
A better design uses a dual-security system, combining a velcro fastener with a zip, but even this will struggle to keep your documents dry once they’ve already been through a fire.
Just as the bag is more fire-resistant than fireproof, most are water-resistant but couldn’t survive complete immersion.
How A Firebag’s Contents Impacts Its Usefulness
Every material has its own burning point. Paper, for instance, ignites at about 480℉, whereas gold melts only once it reaches a temperature of around 1,948℉.
There are two critical temperatures to consider when buying a fireproof bag: external and internal. A high-quality product should withstand an external temperature of up to 1,500°F to 2,000°F while maintaining an internal temperature of less than 350°F.
While this should safeguard any essential documents, it won’t be cool enough to ensure the survival of electronic gadgets, encrypted flash drives, etc.
Apple, for instance, recommends that iPad users keep their devices at an ambient temperature of 0º to 35º C. While higher temperatures may not destroy a smartphone completely, they could render it useless or make it behave strangely. Similarly, even if the plastic parts of your flash drive survive the fire, the digital files could be damaged and potentially unusable.
If your electronic storage devices and other gadgets are exposed to temperatures higher than 125°F, they’re unlikely to serve any more purpose in your life.
Unfortunately, very few fireproof bags can guarantee such a low internal temperature, and you may have to fall back on the fireproof safe option or scout around for a high-quality fireproof box instead.
How To Figure Out How Fire Resistant Your Firebag Is
There are no official ratings and no federal regulations setting out these products’ minimum standards.
In terms of their resistance to flame and heat, the best options are those with a rating from Underwriters Laboratories. These will have UL 94 emblazoned somewhere on their packaging, which means UL has tested the product and guarantees the materials will never melt nor catch fire.
However, even a fire bag with a UL 94 rating may not withstand long exposure periods or temperatures exceeding 2,000°F.
Can I Use It More Than Once?
Although I’ve read about reusable products, finding examples proved virtually impossible.
After much searching, I stumbled across some reusable fireproof envelopes, but I’m not entirely convinced. I haven’t tested them, but as some reviewers have pointed out, these envelopes have nylon on the corners and velcro fastenings that will melt, rendering the product defunct after a single use.
A fireproof safe or box will be a better investment if you want your valuables to survive multiple fires.
Fireproof bags have their uses but are unlikely to protect your most valuable possessions from a hot wildfire. Most products are fire-resistant rather than fireproof and can only withstand short periods of exposure to high temperatures and flames.
To protect things like flash drives and batteries, only the highest quality bag will do, as it needs to maintain an internal temperature of 125°F or less.
If you want to safeguard documents like your passport or birth certificate, you can make do with a fireproof bag that will keep its contents under 350°F.
For those who want a fireproof vessel, you can grab in an emergency, a decent bag should fulfill most of your needs, assuming you can get it out before it exceeds its two-hour exposure limit.
If, on the other hand, you’ve got valuable books, photographs, and electronic equipment, as well as documents, that you need to protect, a fireproof safe with the bag inside will provide a more reliable solution.