Lessons From a House Fire and A False Alarm

Guess who has two thumbs and just woke up all her neighbors to come make sure her house wasn’t on fire, because her smoke alarm smelled smoke from outside?  Yep.  I feel pretty dumb.  BUT, let me give you the back story.

About five years ago I woke up around one AM and stumbled into the kitchen of our then tiny home.  Upon arriving in the kitchen (two steps out of the bedroom) I asked myself what on earth I had come in there for.  Was I thirsty? No.  Did I need to use the bathroom? No.  Baby crying? Nooop.

Then a flickering caught my eye.  It was a tiny flame coming from an out-of-order air conditioner in the corner of the room.  A few weeks earlier when the summer started heating up I had turned it on and it made a funny noise, so I turned it back off and told my husband it was making a funny noise.  But it never occurred to me to unplug it.

Lesson #1 If it doesn’t work, or makes a funny noise, unplug it, don’t just turn it off.  ‘Nuff said.

I still don’t know what it was that woke me up, except the hand of God.  I started screeching for my husband to wake up, and searching for a fire extinguisher as the flames multiplied and crawled up the wall.  We had two of them in our less than 500 square foot house, but in the shuffle of daily life they had been moved to make room for this or that.

Lesson # 2  Mount your fire extinguishers on a wall.  Never move them except to check the charge, replace, or use them.  You need to know exactly where they are at all times.

When my husband woke up and came out we tried to fight the fire with water, which was the way wrong thing to do.  The breaker popped and we were in the dark.  Then my husband ran out to see if we could fight it with a garden hose and realized that not only was the irrigation off, but the flames were much larger on the outside of the house.

Lesson # 3  Know when to fight and when to flee.  There is a formula for deciding how and when to fight a fire, involving the size, location and potential speed of the fire, but suffice it to say When In Doubt Get The Heck Out. *

All that was left to do was leave.  We grabbed our baby and ran next door to call 911.  Thankfully at that time our nearest neighbor was my in-laws.  Thankfully my mother in law had a robe I could borrow, because I was 70 pounds overweight (as opposed to a mere 50lbs over now 😉 ) and wearing nothing but my shortest, summer friendly, nighty. I didn’t grab no shoes or nothing, Jesus, I ran for my life!  Really though, I did.

So we called 911.  They came…to an incomplete bridge which was being built to replace the hundred-plus year old one that had fallen the prior winter.  By the time they found the back route onto the property (we couldn’t exactly give them directions over the river) the house was a lost cause.

Lesson # 4 Don’t assume emergency services know about road closures, washouts, or alternate routes in your area.  If there is anything blocking access to your home, and you’re using an alternate route, you need to let dispatch know.  Especially for a rural volunteer fire crew.  They don’t have a magic super-computer to tell them these things.

We escaped that fire with what we were wearing and our baby.  Fortunately we both have large families in the area, and an amazing community and bounced back very quickly despite losing everything and not having any renter’s insurance at the time.

Fast forward to tonight.  Tonight was one of the rare occasions when I went to bed before midnight.  My husband downloaded The Hobbit, and we went to bed around ten and watched about an hour of the movie before turning it off and going to sleep.

Piercing beeps, flashing lights.  Mama up out of bed like a bullet!  No smoke or flames.  Check the house.  Check the kids room.  Nothing.  Feel the walls, check the appliances, look out the windows, basement, attic…Nothing.  Back to bed shaking from head to toe and into the core of my being.  Maybe the batteries are wearing out.  Close eyes.

Piercing beeps, flashing lights.  Repeat the above paragraph, except this time I go outside to look around.  Definitely smell smoke out there.  Look at the roof.  Check the chicken coop; no signs of trouble.  BEEP BEEP BEEEEP!  BEEP BEEP BEEEEP!

Wake up the kids, make them come downstairs while my husband looks around.  He can smell the smoke from outside now, but still can’t see, hear or smell anything to indicate the house is on fire…except the fire alarm keeps going off.

Finally the alarms get to me, and while hubby is looking in the attic, I panic and call 911.  I tell them about the alarms and that we can’t see anything, but can smell smoke outside.  I ask are there any other reports of smoke in the area.  No.  They say they’ll send someone out and I take the kids to my good friend’s house across the street.

Now the volunteer fire fighters start showing up.  Thanks Nate, and Doug!  Nate has strong smoke at his house about three miles away, and the valley has a definite haze.  We deduce that somehow the fire alarm is detecting that (although it never detected any smoke when our entire region was blanked in smoke and under hazardous air warnings for a month last summer) and after talking to hubby he calls off the troops, while Doug and hubby do some extra looking around.

The kids and I wait for the all clear at my friend’s house and then head home.  I tuck everyone in and resign myself to a long sleepless night.

I love my small town, but I hate that everyone is going to know I panicked.

What I learned from tonight.

#1 My kids do NOT wake up from a fire alarm.  In fact many kids do not.  And of those who do, many do not know what to do.

#2 Although I consider myself prepared, I did not grab the “go box” which has all of our important documents in it, when I left with the kids.  Had there been an actual fire I feel certain my husband also would not have grabbed the go box.  Maybe I need to rethink my fire plan to include times when I’m pretty sure there’s not a fire, but we’re leaving just in case.

#3 I need to write it on the calendar (or perhaps pencil it right on the alarm mount) when I change batteries.  I feel like I remember doing it around Christmas when I did a unit on safety at home with my Camp Fire group.  The red LED is flashing every 45 seconds, just as it should, and the alarm was the same as when I burn toast, not the chirp it typically does when the batteries are going bad.  But I’m not sure, so I’m having the hubby pick up some fresh batteries tomorrow.

#4 It’s time to buy an escape latter for the second floor and practice using it.

#5 Just like back in my college days, I can write a whole composition in an hour given the proper amount of adrenaline…whether it be from a looming deadline, or a false fire alarm.


Although I do feel silly about waking all of my neighbors, and I am by no means an expert on these things, I think I can safely remind you that ANY time you think there is a fire, or any other dangerous situation in your home, you should get yourself and your family to a safe location and call 911.  

I’ll share this post with No Ordinary Blog Hop, The Homestead Barn Hop, and the Homeacre Hop.

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