by guest blogger George DeVault, author of FIRE CALL!, a volunteer firefighter’s memoir
The blue minivan was a huge ball of fire when our pumper truck pulled into the parking lot. Orange flames licked the front wall of the dry cleaners and curled onto the roof.
Our hose team knocked the fire out before it caused serious damage to the building. The minivan was a total loss. As we mopped up the mess, the fire chief asked the owner of the van, “What happened?”
“I don’t know!” she said. “I just emptied my ashtray into a plastic bag. I put the bag on the backseat and went inside. Next thing I knew, the van was on fire.” Never mind that the cigarette she thought she’d stubbed out was in the ashtray.
To paraphrase a popular T-shirt, “Stuff happens.” Dumb stuff. Even to typically smart people. That’s because they never give fire safety a second thought, even though this “dumb stuff” can destroy your world by burning your property or, worse, killing you and your family in a flash.
But I’m not picking on female drivers. Here are a couple more strange-but-true tales from my 30 years as a volunteer firefighter:
The Woodsman: There was once a manly woodsman. He heated his country home with a woodstove. When it came time to empty the ashes, he didn’t want to walk too far in the cold. So he dumped the ashes on the flower bed—right beside his house. They’ll be good for the flowers and bushes, he thought.
What he didn’t think of was all the dead, dry leaves in the flower bed or the tiny red embers that might still be lurking in the gray ashes. Poof! Flames suddenly shot up the side of the house, curled into the eaves, and licked across his living room ceiling.
The Hungry Family: When the power went out, the family had been cooking dinner. Everyone was starving, so they went into town to eat at the diner. While they were out, the power came back on. So did the kitchen range. The burner under the pan of sausage was still set on high.
As the family turned into the driveway, they drove into a thick cloud of smoke. The kitchen was a huge orange fireball. Flames rolled into the dining room, to the living room, and down the hall toward the bedrooms.
And then there’s this:
Dumb but deadly stuff is just waiting to happen everywhere. The romantic candle in the bedroom window set the curtains on fire when the breeze picked up. The deep fryer on the kitchen counter boiled over. The overloaded, frayed extension cord torched the garage.
Then there’s gasoline, my favorite flammable that people routinely disrespect. When mixed with the proper proportion of air, the vapor from just one cup of gasoline has the explosive force of roughly five sticks of dynamite.
Occasionally use gasoline to take beach tar off of your tennis shoes? Just don’t throw your sneaks dripping wet with high-test into the dryer unless you want to get blown through the front door. Determined to get rid of a nest of nasty ground bees beside your front door? That’s easy; pour a pint of petrol down the hole and light a match. Just be prepared to kiss your shrubbery good-bye. And don’t try to cover it up by lying to the fire chief because you’re afraid of what your spouse will say.
Yes, little things often make the difference between life and death. Consider smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms. Many people still don’t have them. Many more fail to change their batteries regularly.
We all remember having fire drills in school. Did you ever have a fire drill at home? Why not? You spend a lot more time at home than you do at school or work. In case of a fire, you need to know your escape routes. Just as important, you need to agree on a meeting place outside so you know everyone got out safely.
Firefighters routinely and needlessly risk their lives searching burning buildings for people who, unbeknownst to anyone, are already safely outside.
Stay tuned. We’ll be talking fire calls on Thursday.
Retired fire chief George DeVault recently chronicled the highs—and lows—of his 30 years on the hose in his award-winning memoir, FIRE CALL! Sounding the Alarm to save Our Vanishing Volunteers. George and his wife, Melanie, live on a small farm near Emmaus, Pennsylvania, where they’ve raised organic vegetables, flowers, and blueberries since 1984.