Thursday, February 13, 2014

House Fires: Call to Action, My Experience and Tips for Your Family

Call to Action 

This past week a very sweet woman I went to high school with lost her home to a house fire. She also a fellow blogger with a new blog about her family’s adventure of buying and living on a ranch in Montana (Check out The Montana Ranch Adventure here). There is a relief effort going on right now to help her family. Please visit their Relief page here if you have a moment to donate or at least give some support to a family going through a shocking hard time right now. I can't imagine what it's like to have two young kids and have a house fire, and their family is my thoughts today.

My Experience

Four years and two months ago, I was in a similar less severe situation. I was pregnant with my first child and back home visiting my parents for the holiday. My husband and I were at my parent’s home while they were both at work. We heard a sudden banging on the front door. The dogs went crazy, and I was irritated because no one we knew ever uses the front door. Must be someone trying to sell something.

Once I figured out how to open the door, I saw a complete stranger on the door step. She immediately bursts out “Your house is on fire, you need to get out now!” I couldn’t comprehend the words coming out of her mouth. I must have looked puzzled because she repeated herself. I decided to go outside and take a look myself. Sure enough, the roof of my house was engulfed in flames. My husband comes upstairs (since the dogs were still going crazy) and I yell at him, “Call 911.” He looks at me like I’m crazy and says “I don’t know your parent’s address!” All the while this stranger can’t understand why we aren’t leaving the burning house. “I’ve already called 911! You need to get out!”

I hadn’t been in an emergency situation before, and I now know that I don’t react particularly well. I don’t panic or get hysterical or anything, I just shut down. I found myself standing around trying to comprehend what was going on. Thankfully my husband is a thinker and do-er in that type of situation, and he immediately got the dogs in our car, grabbed a couple of items and started moving vehicles so the fire trucks would have a clear street to set up on. We were also blessed that our neighbors happen to be home, and they are a family of firefighters and EMT’s. They immediately took control of the situation and got keys to move cars (including my dad’s prized anniversary edition Camaro) and told me exactly what I needed to do. As I was trying to find the Camaro keys (took me a while because I wasn’t allowed to drive it!), my mom came home from work. The fire happened right around 5:00 pm, and my mom even pulled over for the fire trucks on her way home. The first thing she said when she got to the scene and came inside was, “What did you do?!?” Today we can laugh about what a ridiculous statement that was. If I had been with it, I probably would have answered, “Shooting fireworks at the roof.”

My dad was at a work function. The ironic thing is he was/is an EMT and if had his pager turned up, he would have heard the call go out for a structure fire at his own address. My mom called him and yelled “The house is on fire.” and hung up. (How would you like to get that call?) He arrived as the fire trucks were unloading hoses and the like. He was immediately concerned to see if I had closed the fire safe (no) or grabbed any documents (no). He is a do-er as well and immediately had people on the phone. My mom asked if I had grabbed the family photo albums (also a no). I was on all sorts of medication for my pregnancy (blood thinners, insulin etc.), and I hadn’t even grabbed that.

As the firefighters got to work on our house, I stood across the street by our neighbor’s tree. That was important as I’ll get to below. The fire hydrant was frozen, so there was no water for the hoses. The firefighters were forced to use a foam substance on our house. That turned out to be our house’s saving grace. There was no water damage to worry about once the fire was put out.

As we and all our neighbors stood there watching our house burn, it was pretty silent. Silence was not golden. Our smoke detectors had yet to go off. There was smoke in the house prior to the neighbor coming to the door to warn us, but we hadn’t thought much of it. My parents had a wood burning fireplace my husband and I had been using that day so we rationalized the smoke being from the fireplace. I did say to my husband about 20 minutes before the knock on the door that the house was too smoky, and my dad was going to be mad. I had opened a couple of windows and went about my business.
My childhood bedroom. The fire started right above this room.
My old bedroom.
A mess, but no substantial water damage.
The fire started in the attic. Temporary roof already up.
Ground Zero. Temporary roof already up.
One of the firefighters on the roof ended up falling through the roof into my parent’s bedroom (on to their 2 day old bed that was an early Christmas present). Once that happened, the smoke detectors went off. They are quite loud. We could hear them clearly across the street. The firefighters of Spearfish did an amazing job, and got the fire put out. The roof was a wreck, several rooms were ruined, but they saved most of the house and our neighbor’s house. We were very lucky.

It was two days before Christmas, and we had to spend the holiday in a hotel. There was also a huge blizzard the next day after the fire. The snow was so bad, we could barely get food and that was only if we found a store open. We had our Christmas dinner at the ambulance barn. A group of very nice people really made the experience a bit less terrible. The firefighters got us a new Christmas tree. The professional cleaning service picked up our Christmas presents and put them in the ozone machine to get rid of the smoke smell even though they had their own families to attend to. A tarp got put on the roof right away. Co-workers of my parents chipped in to get my family the essentials. The hotel got my parents a suite that was like an apartment. My parents’ friend and neighbor opened her basement up so my parents had somewhere to live while they rebuilt. Several several months later, the house was done and ready to be moved back into. Things were replaced and irreplaceable things were salvaged. The luck of the fire hydrant freezing meant my family’s photographs sitting in the room below the most fire damaged room were saved.
Our replacement Christmas tree in our hotel room.
The snow storm that hit a just a couple of days after the fire.
Just a little bit of snow to move to get to the house.
The investigation found that when previous owners had put insulation in they hadn’t left enough space between the chimney and the insulation. The insulation had slowly started smoldering until it eventually started on fire. We were again lucky that it happened when people could see and warn us of the danger. If it had been at night, it could have been a long time before the smoke detectors woke us up.

Preparation Tips For Your Family

Growing up my dad had been a preparation nut. I remember being very little (around 5) when my dad started running drills with us. He had videos for us to watch about house fires and talked about the plan if there was a fire. We practiced those plans often. That training was essential. When my dad came on scene, I was sitting in front of the neighbor’s tree. That tree had been our family meeting place when we talked about our house fire plans. It had been over 10 years since we had talked about that plan, but since we had run drills and talked about it so much, it was routine. Even though I was completely zoned out, it was engrained in me to follow the plan. The problem with situations like house fires is if you are never put in that situation, you don’t know how you’ll react. I didn’t know that I would go completely blank. It’s important to have a plan in place.

According to the National Fire Prevention Association, only 1 of every 3 households have developed and practiced a home fire escape plan. 71% of Americans have a plan in place but only 47% of those have practiced it. You could have less than 6 minutes to get out of a house before it becomes life threatening.

The NFPA has a great tip sheet on creating an escape plan. 

  • Make an escape plan. Draw a map of your home showing all doors and windows and discuss the plan with everyone in your home.

  • Know two ways to get out of every room if possible.

  • Have an outside meeting place a safe distance from the home.

  • Practice the fire drill at night and during the day, twice a year. My dad would test the smoke detectors after we went to bed so we heard the noise to wake us up.

  • When you practice, use different routes to get out of the house.

  • Teach children how to escape on their own in case you can’t help them. (I struggle with this with my children. I worry about them being so young and helpless.)

  • Close doors behind you as you leave.

  • If you hear a smoke alarm go off, get out and stay out. (I’m talk to you dear husband who went back into the burning house to grab stuff.)

  • If you have to escape through smoke, get low and go under the smoke.

  • Call the fire department from outside your home (I didn’t follow this rule myself in my daze.)

In our situation, the smoke detectors didn’t go off until long after the fire had been burning. 2/3 of home fire deaths occur where there is no smoke alarms at all or they aren’t working. Working smoke alarms cut the risk of dying in a house fire by half.

  • Install smoke alarms in every bedroom, outside each sleeping area and on every level of the home including the basement. My dad was very careful about making sure we had working smoke detectors in our home growing up, but we didn’t have one in the attic. It’s important to have a system in your attic!

  • Larger homes may need additional smoke alarms to provide enough protection

  • For best protection, interconnect all smoke alarms so when one sounds they all sound. This is what my parents did when they rebuilt. All smoke alarms were interconnected. Yes, at times it was annoying like when my mom cooked, but they are worth the extra hassle.

  • An ionization smoke alarm is generally more responsive to flaming fires and a photoelectric smoke alarm is generally more responsive to smoldering fires (like the one in our attic). For the best protection, both types of alarms or combination ionization and photoelectric alarms (also known as duel sensor alarms) are recommended.

  • Smoke alarms should be installed away from the kitchen to prevent false alarms. Generally, they should be 10 feet from a cooking appliance.

  • Replace all smoke alarms when they are 10 years old.
All information provided by the National Fire Prevention Association’s Public Education Division.

Fire prevention isn’t something most people think about day to day. Even after living through a house fire, I find myself slacking on checking alarms and creating an escape plan. It’s a hard thing to live through, but making sure you're prepared can help keep your family safe in an emergency.


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