As a 15-year veteran of the fire service, it is a rare opportunity to discuss the circumstances of a home fire and the associated difficulties beyond a fire investigation. One such brave soul offered me that opportunity. This is her story.
She had a typical day at work and arrived home tired and suffering from seasonal allergy symptoms. She found herself standing in a dark house with no electricity, so she lit a candle.
The candle was placed on the kitchen counter above the dishwasher. She then took an allergy tablet, which made her drowsy. She normally takes a short nap each evening then gets up to eat, pay bills and watch a little television. She always walks the house before retiring for the evening to make sure everything is turned off and that the doors are locked. She intended to follow this same routine on Sept. 30, 2009.
She awoke from her nap at her usual time but was strangely disoriented with an uneasy feeling. She grabbed her phone, got out of bed and walked toward the kitchen. She couldn’t really wake up all the way and thought that it must be from the lingering effects of the allergy medicine. She was experiencing some difficulty breathing and coughing. Her vision was obscured by smoke, which was everywhere. She tried calling 911 as she walked toward the back door but couldn’t negotiate both under the circumstances. She exited the rear door and noticed her hand was in pain but ignored it until she completed the 911 call.
Sugar Land firefighters arrived quickly. They made fast work of the small (by their standards) kitchen fire, started a big fan at the front door to vent the smoke and covered furniture with red tarps. Several neighbors offered assistance, compassion and a place to stay for the night. A little later, a Sugar Land fire investigator arrived to determine the cause of the fire -- she remembered the candle. The fire had been started by a candle left burning on the kitchen counter just below a roll of paper towels that were connected to the underside of the upper (wooden) kitchen cabinets. The firefighters and the fire investigator told her just how lucky she was to have survived, particularly since she had no working smoke detectors in her home!
When she arrived the next day to survey the damage she was astonished at how much fire, heat, smoke and of course water had damaged her home. The home was no longer her comfortable nest; in fact, it was now uninhabitable. She thought, “What am I to do?” Where will I go! How will I ever afford my insurance deductible on my meager single income? To say the least, she was devastated.
I heard about this incident a few days later and was commented to SLFD Emergency Services Assistant Chief Jeff Krehmeier on just how lucky she was to have survived. He said that he knew this citizen personally. I asked that he contact her about possibly being interviewed “on camera” for SLTV 16, the city of Sugar Land’s cable television channel. He waited a week or two and then gave her a call. She immediately said that she would like to participate if it could help save someone’s life or at least keep others from going through her ordeal.
The purpose of the video was to demonstrate that fires do occur in Sugar Land and just how far reaching the effects can be. We wanted to use this near tragic incident for something good. It was our desire to utilize this rare opportunity to explain how to keep fires from happening and what to do if one does occur so others can safely escape.
She was eager to share her story. The first thing that she said caught me by surprise yet was not captured on tape. She told me how terrible she felt for her neighbors and her 10-year-old granddaughter. She relayed that she now understood just how fast the fire grew and that she had endangered the houses of her longtime neighbors on either side of her home. Tears were welling up in her eyes as she further explained how her granddaughter called her a few weeks later explaining how nervous she was and that she was having difficulty sleeping. She was concerned for her grandmother’s welfare. She begged her not to light any more candles.
We completed our video interview that day and took the opportunity to discuss several safety items, particularly candle safety, cooking safety, smoke alarms, and portable fire extinguishers. We also reviewed a home escape plan. We offered her (as we offer all residents of Sugar Land) a free home safety survey conducted by our firefighters -- a 30-point check for typical fire and life safety hazards e. We conduct these by appointment seven days a week.
She now has four working smoke alarms installed throughout her home. She knows two ways out of every room and ensures that they are accessible. She uses flameless candles and will use a flashlight and battery-operated lantern if ever without power again. She now realizes that the products of combustion in a normal house fire are so toxic that most people never wake up without first being alerted by a working smoke alarm. You only have about 2-3 minutes to escape a typical house fire; therefore, it is essential to have a practiced escape plan.
To schedule a home safety survey please call the Sugar Land Fire Department Administration at 281-491-0852, M-F, 8am–5pm and ask for the public education office. To view SLtv 16 online go to www.sugarlandtx.gov
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