A House Fire Changed My Family Forever

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I was never concerned about a house fire all the years we lived in the Phoenix area. We always lived in newer homes and I don’t recall a single incident in which a home in our neighborhood caught fire.

Moving to an almost 50-year old house in Texas though is another matter. Every couple of months I read about yet another house fire in our small town.

Like everyone else, my first thought is for the safety of my loved ones when it comes to house fire safety. We have smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, and I’ve talked with my kids about ways to escape from every room of the house, and they know to meet at the front of the house by the mailbox if this should ever happen.

The potential loss of loved ones played out in a story Marilyn, a Texas mom and registered nurse, told me when a house fire forced her family to evacuate late one night. Read on for her real-life survival story.

Marilyn’s house fire story

“Around 11:30 one winter night, my husband and I were watching TV in bed with our door closed. Our 18-year-old son was in the living room on the computer and in our basement lived a single gent who was renting that space.

My husband and I started smelling something like burned toast, and I opened the bedroom door to ask my son what he was cooking/burning. As I opened the bedroom door, I heard him yelling that smoke was coming out the furnace vents. At the same time, I heard the basement tenant banging around downstairs, knocking over furniture. I yelled at my son that the house was on fire and to get out.

It was at this point that our prior planning and preparedness for just this type of event helped but still, mistakes were made, as you’ll see.”

Planning ahead helped save lives

“We have been foster parents for delinquent teens, and because of this, we were required by the state to have certain safety procedures in place. Bedrooms doors were always closed when occupied, and fire drill plans were framed and hung by bedroom doors. From time to time, we even had actual drills. Our written plans included instructions to check the bedroom doorknob for heat before opening and to not open it if the room was already smoky or the door was hot.

We also had a prearranged meeting spot outside so we could make sure that each person was safe. As part of our fire safety plans, everyone was always told to not wait around inside the house or look around for things to “rescue”. We made sure that everyone knew to climb out of a window if a doorway led into an unsafe, smoke-filled area.

The night of our house fire, I first opened our bedroom door and for just a few seconds, I couldn’t believe what I saw. Yes, the house was on fire and what happened next, happened within just a couple of panic-filled minutes!

Before going to sleep at night, I’ve always put our 3 dogs in their kennels. On this particular night, only one was in his kennel, and the other 2 were loose in our bedroom. Our cat was allowed to roam the house. As soon as I opened the bedroom door to check on the smell of smoke, the 2 loose dogs ran to the side door as they were used to going out to the yard that way. My spouse, without checking, opened the side door. Later, I learned that smoke was billowing out from under that door and the two dogs were killed, most likely immediately, by the heat and smoke. It was a very sad loss.”

Getting out fast is key

“My husband, son, and I ran out the front door in our pajamas and into a snowy, frigid night. Because one toy poodle was in his kennel, we were able to grab him as we raced to safety. My son was able to go back to the front door and grab coats, shoes and, luckily, our wallets and my purse. They were all hanging on hooks by the front door. From just those few, brief seconds in the smoke-filled house, however, my son experienced a significant smoke inhalation injury.

Once all three of us were outside, my son dialed 911. This all occurred in a matter of just two or three minutes from when we first smelled smoke. It happened so fast!A house fire changes lives forever. Learn how to prepare your home and loved ones. #firesafety Click To Tweet

We basically lost everything in this fire. The gentleman who was living in the basement died. He had fallen asleep smoking.”

Learning from what went right, and wrong

“Looking back, we did a lot of things right in spite of the tragic outcome of this event. We had planned for a potential house fire, even if those plans weren’t executed perfectly. Having our coats, wallets, and shoes by our main exit point, the front door, worked out great, and we needed all those items! The money and debit/credit cards in our wallets allowed us to drive to a hotel, pay for a room, and buy food and other necessities during the days initially following the fire. Keeping our dogs in kennels at night is something I still do, both for their safety and my comfort.

Our established meeting place allowed us to quickly confirm that everyone was okay and what each person had done, e.g. call 911, evacuate the kenneled dog, etc. It also gave us a primary goal to focus on: get to that meeting place! It was a huge relief to know that we were all safe.

The mistakes that we made included not having all the dogs kenneled earlier. I opened the bedroom door without thinking. I honestly did not initially consider a fire, but my biggest mistake was not accurately assessing and understanding family members’ strengths and limitations. My son did everything he was trained to do. My husband, not so much.

As an RN, I knew panic often sets in when there’s an emergency, and this was a huge one! I’m trained to assess and give firm direction to those who cannot function, but when I needed to put that training to use with my own family members, I failed to remember this danger or to recognize it. Because of that, I was unable to give firm directions, which may have helped us get out more quickly, stopped our dogs from exiting a very dangerous doorway, or possibly salvaged more of our belongings at the last minute.

In our panic mode, we forgot to assess doorknobs for heat and smoke. We lost two dogs and a cat and if I hadn’t intervened quickly, we would have been dealing with the death of my husband, who was standing directly in front of a mass of fire and smoke. I now realize, more than ever, that not everyone can handle major crises like this one. If you recognize signs of that tendency before something happens, you can provide specific, verbal directions and, possibly, avoid some disasters.

In hindsight, we came out okay. Insurance covered a bit, enough to help us buy the most important necessities for re-establishing a household, but the money wasn’t nearly enough. Smoke damage is terrible and almost impossible to get out of any belongings.”

Three layers for house fire safety

The house fire left an imprint on Marilyn and her family they will never forget. Not only was the event tragic in terms of loss of life, but everything they owned was damaged beyond repair.

She doesn’t mention in her story whether their smoke alarm went off or not, and for sure, this is an inexpensive step, adding smoke alarms to your home. They should go inside each bedroom, outside each sleeping area (hallways, for example), and on every level of the home, including the basement. If you’ll be adding one to your kitchen, make sure it’s at least 10 feet (3 meters) away from any cooking appliance — no need for false alarms every time you burn a grilled cheese sandwich.

Fire extinguishers are another layer and another inexpensive prep. For about $25 or so, you can equip your kitchen with a Class K extinguisher (designed to extinguish grease fires) and then one on each floor of the house, in the garage, in the laundry room, and outside if you have a grill or outdoor kitchen. Add one more to the trunk of your car so you’ll be ready to quickly handle a car fire, small brush fire, a campfire, or other small fire.

Make a house fire safety plan and work the plan

Everyone in the family should know what to do when the smoke alarm sounds, how to get out of any given room of the house, and where the family meeting point is. Marilyn had trained her family well and even so, her son re-entered the house to retrieve some essentials they kept inside their front door.

The safety of our loved ones is paramount. In a crisis like this, your Number One concern will be the location of each person. Schedule some time now to sit down and come up with a fire safety plan for your home and family:

  1. Check your fire alarms to make sure the batteries are operational.
  2. Install additional alarms if necessary.
  3. Make sure you have a fire extinguisher in the kitchen at the very least.
  4. Buy one smaller extinguisher and have everyone in the family practice using it outside.
  5. Have a family meeting and go from room to room and talk about how you could escape a fire from each one, e.g. in the bathroom you might have to break a window to get outside.
  6. Identify a meeting place outside.
  7. Plan now what to do with pets. Make sure your children understand they are to never stay in a burning house to look for a pet or go back inside.
  8. Have a family fire drill every 3-6 months. As kids get older, they’ll be able to take on more responsibilities in the emergency plans and response.

All this together creates multiple layers of safety, from smoke alarms to fire drills. Together, they increase the likelihood of every family member surviving a house fire. Read this post for complete guidance about preparing for a house fire.

3 thoughts on “A House Fire Changed My Family Forever”

  1. For some reason people think fire sprinklers are too expensive or do too much damage. For around 3000 you can have them put in a house. If you think a 1/2 inch opening on a fire sprinkler puts out too much water, look at a 2 inch fire hose at 3 times the pressure.

  2. As I write this I am living in a cargo trailer on my lawn. My 1956 built home is not the problem, its my less than 5 year old refrigerator that burnt my home.

    1. I am so sorry to hear this! You might be interested in a webinar interview I have scheduled for Sunday, October 6, 7 p.m. Central, with my husband who is a Master Electrician and former electrical contractor. He has worked a number of fire jobs and will be discussing home electrical systems and house fires. Here’s the link, https://zoom.us/j/314492523.

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