On Fire

hay day

I set my alarm for five o’clock this morning, as per yesterday’s discussion, but it did not turn out to be a quiet or peaceful morning at all. First, I forgot to reschedule the coffee pot, so I had to wait for my morning cuppa. (Oh, the horrors!) Then, the baby woke for a nursing shortly after I rolled out of bed, but before the coffee finished percolating. So it was that I found myself awake, but uncaffeinated, tending to a baby at 5:30ish in the morning, which is when I heard the siren. The local fire station was calling in her volunteer fire fighters, and a few minutes later, I heard the sirens of the trucks rolling out – and heading our way. When I got the baby back to bed, I grabbed a cup of coffee and stepped outside to see if I could tell where it was coming from. We have lots of friends and acquaintances within range of those sirens. At first, I didn’t see anything, but then I caught a glimpse of red taillights through the trees. I headed up the driveway for a better look, and sure enough, the trucks were parked at a neighbor’s house two doors down! I watched smoke pouring from the far side of the house, and I watched the smoke become flames licking through the roof. I listened to more sirens coming out from town and I saw another truck come in from another tiny station nearby. Then I had to go back inside to cook breakfast for a large family with places to go today. I was able to find the family that belongs to that house later in the morning. They weren’t home at the time of the fire, and don’t know what happened, and they haven’t had a chance to evaluate their needs just yet. The Red Cross is going to take care of them tonight. The house is a total loss, but nobody was hurt. That’s a comfort, but it’s a sad thing to lose all those little treasures a family accumulates: the photographs, the Christmas ornaments made by kindergartners, the china handed down from a grandmother, the birth certificates… It’s just hard.

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I have some experience with a house fire and all the trauma and drama, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to offer some helpful reminders:

1. Make sure you have working smoke alarms throughout the house. They only work if you’re home to hear them, but they do work. Change the batteries twice a year, whether they need it or not. You can reuse the batteries in other, non-critical devices, like alarm clocks.

2. Make sure you have at least one fire extinguisher, though I’d recommend one for each floor of your home. If you can swing a big, quality one, great, but even a $10 disposable model from Walmart is better than nothing. Make sure it’s an ABC extinguisher that can squelch all kinds of fires. If you’re able to catch the fire when it’s still small, you might be able to save your home.  Also, make sure it’s in an obvious location.  I know they aren’t very decorative, but if people can’t find them, they can’t use them.

3. Invest in a fire safe. You can keep your important documents in here, and maybe film negatives or backups, so that you don’t completely lose vital information and precious memories. They usually come with keys, but don’t lock it. The fire protective qualities work just as well locked or unlocked, but if you get robbed, a thief can rifle through an open safe and see that it’s just paperwork. If it’s locked, he may run off with it to open later at his convenience. We have found ours to hold moisture, though, so add a desiccant. You can get a container in the closet storage department at Walmart.

4. If you have kids and no easy way out of second story windows, you might want to get a fire ladder, too. Better safe than sorry, no? Like insurance, it seems like wasted money all those times you don’t need it, but if you do, you’ll be glad it’s there.

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Here’s a reprint of a story I wrote back in 2007. It’s called:

The Very Long Tale of How I Burned Down My Mother-In-Law’s House

It was September of 1996, and my sister was getting married in New Jersey, so we made the journey from Colorado Springs to be there. Brenna was only six months old then, so we were still a small enough family to stay with relatives without causing too much inconvenience. So it was that we pulled into my mother-in-law’s driveway one bright, clear morning, full of excitement at seeing our far distant loved ones again. My dear mother-in-law gallantly gave up the master bedroom for our planned week-long stay and bid us make ourselves to home, and we did. Little did any of us know that things were going to take a terrible turn before too long.

Now David is not one to see the value in rising early if one does not have to be at work at oh-dark-thirty. The in-laws had already left for work, and so it was that Brenna and I were the only ones awake in the house at a quarter to seven. Well, not quite. There was a fat bunny, too. The fat bunny was permitted to hop about the house as he pleased and, as anyone who knows anything about bunnies knows, left many, many presents all over the carpet. The residents of the house and owners of the bunny seemed not to mind this situation and were quite adept at walking around this bounty, but I, the new mother of a small baby, found this to be absolutely intolerable. So I vacuumed up the multiple gifts, laid a sheet on the floor which I did not consider to be anywhere near clean, and set Brenna upon it with a few toys.

At seven in the morning, having already done all this work just to get up, I was more than ready for a cup of coffee, so I left the vacuum where it was, went into the adjacent kitchen and began the brewing process. By now, it was slightly after seven, and it was the day the bride was due to arrive, so I called my mother to hear the latest wedding news. The coffee still wasn’t done when I hung up, so I took the opportunity to use the powder room. It was, after all, first thing in the morning. For an instant, I considered brushing my teeth, too, but, providentially, I did not.

Now the bathroom opened off of a tiny alcove, along with the two other bedrooms, adjacent to the living room where Brenna was still playing. As I stepped out of the bathroom and into the alcove, I smelled something. Something hot, like a curling iron, perhaps. For another instant, I thought to check the two bedrooms for the source of the smell, but decided to look in on Brenna first. ‘Twas a good thing, too, for my little angel was sitting on the floor, playing happily with those ubiquitous Fisher Price keys, in front of a burning couch!

It’s funny what adrenaline does to you. It seems like everything is happening in slow motion, like you have all the time in the world to make decisions and take action. To an observer, though, it would all seem to happen so quickly! So it was that I assessed the situation, scooped up the baby, kicked in the bedroom door like some sort of Hollywood action star, yelled, “Fire!” at my sleeping husband, and twirled around to grab the phone. It was beautiful, really, efficient and graceful. One of my shining moments! I dialed 911 and watched David hop out of the bedroom and into his pants. He, too, assessed the situation, and decided it called for a comforter. He dragged one off of the bed and threw it onto the couch in an effort to smother the fire before it spread. He did well; in just a moment the couch was out, but, unfortunately, the wall had caught. We decided it was now a good time to leave, so we headed out the back door.

As we came around the side of the house, I noticed with surprise that the electric company was already out there. Then we stood on the front lawn, milling about, wondering what to do while we waited. David moved the bunny hutch away from the house. Then he suggested I call my father to come pick us up, as our car keys were currently inside melting away. After a while, the police came and blocked off the street, and let us wait in the back of one of the cars. The volunteer fire department got to work shortly thereafter. My dad sweet-talked his way through the road blocks to collect Brenna and me. David stayed with the house and the car and waited for his mother to arrive. He knew she’d need him.

Now the other funny thing about adrenaline is the absence of fear. Although you can see and understand the danger plainly, you are detached from it, almost like it is happening to someone else. Until, that is, the danger is past. Then it all comes down on you like a ton of bricks, and the what-ifs are staggering. I spent the rest of the day feeling completely and utterly helpless, holding Brenna and wishing I could hold David, too. That night, though, when I lay down beside them, all of us safe and together, I realized that I knew for certain something I’d hoped was true: My love was strong enough that I’d willingly brave death for them.

Of course, my sister, the bride, arrived that same afternoon. I was her Matron of Honor, which made David mad for some reason, but eleven (now 20!) years later, I still don’t know why. We moved his parents into a temporary house, and the surrounding communities were very generous in furnishing and provisioning it. The fire inspector declared it an electrical fire, which I have always attributed to the vacuum cleaner. Eventually, the in-laws bought their own home, a big step after all those years of renting. The bunny lived to a ripe old age, and was succeeded by more and bigger bunnies, and a cat. David went on to serve his year in Korea, managing to create another child during mid-tour leave. He is now the father of six healthy, happy children. And I, the chronicler of this misadventure, have always since owned at least one fire extinguisher, planned out every fire escape situation imaginable, and refused to vacuum other people’s houses.

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4 Comment

  1. Our house burned down in 1982.

    We have Nest Smoke / Carbon Monoxide detectors that have both sound, light, and voice warnings. It is connect to my Nest Thermostat and if it detects either fire or CO, then it will shut down the furnace. It will also alert my phone.

    1. Well, that sounds pretty handy.

  2. I am near phobic about fires…have been since I was a kid. I also plan escape routes, lol. A friend of mine recently lost everything in a fire. Her family is unharmed, thankfully. But she has really been hurt by the constant”it’s just stuff, it doesn’t matter” type of comments.

    1. My mom was, too. Wouldn’t even burn candles, just in case. I’m really sorry about your friend’s home. Lives are always more important than stuff, but I think all of us have a sentimental attachment to at least some of our things, and it’s hard to lose all that.

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