My next-door neighbor’s garage caught fire on 3/1/2012, and I was the first 911 caller. Losses totaled over $150,000 in property damage including the garage, breezeway, tools and equipment and a car. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Our home received $2800 damage to our vinyl siding, but insurance covered it. I wrote a long story about it, but few would have time or inclination to read it. Here are some lessons I learned from the fire.
- Call 911 as soon as you see fire. Don’t try to put out the fire or try saving someone. Call 911 first, and then follow the dispatcher’s instructions. That’s exactly what I did. In moments, fire crews were mobilized.
- Be lucky. We were; nobody was hurt. It was a damp day featuring snow showers of big heavy wet flakes, but not a blizzard. Fire crews arrived in 10 minutes of my call. Winds were light and blew smoke and fire away from the home. Since it was an attached garage, it could have been much worse. Fire crews saved the house, though it was damaged by smoke and water; insurance covered most of their losses.
The fire happened on a Thursday. Fire crews in our town have training sessions every Thursday morning. A fire crew was ready to go when the call came in. The first ladder truck arrived within 10 minutes of my call.
More luck: A slow-moving train carrying wood chips went through the crossing shortly after the ladder truck crossed the tracks. Had our fire crew been delayed, it could have meant the neighbors’ house would have been lost in addition to their garage and breezeway.
It was lucky I went out to mail an art application about 10:35 a.m. on March 1. Had I been delayed, it may have been too late. Had I been earlier, I might not have spotted the fire.
- Be ready to act fast in an emergency. At one point, the fire rose so high and was so strong, we feared it could spread to our house. A firefighter recommended we remove our cat and put her in our car down the street, just to be safe. When I went inside our house, perhaps for the last time, I took only car and van keys, our cell phone, my wallet and the cat in her carrier. It took me only seconds to do it, but if I had to search for my keys, it could have been a deadly delay. We keep our keys and wallets in designated spots.
- If you have a wood stove, be very careful how you dispose of the ashes. Our neighbor thought his 1-1/2 day old ashes were cold, but we learned they can be live up to one week or more. He spread them in the snow in his yard as usual, but a coal ignited, setting a 6' x 5' stack of cord wood ablaze. The fire then spread to the back of the garage. The vinyl siding created thick black smoke. Accelerants in the garage included propane tanks, a car, two snow blowers, several gas-powered tools and equipment. The fire took 4-1/2 hours to put out.
- It’s better not to talk to the press. I avoided the video cameras and print reporters trolling the crowd for willing victims. It’s inevitable that people's comments are edited, taken out of context, or even misquoted. People interviewed under stress may say things that come across on camera in a negative way, and it’s impossible to take back what is said.The priority is to keep viewers watching and to sell newspapers.
- Have a sense of humor. Our neighbor’s wife, who was away when the fire happened, said upon her return, “I told him to clean the garage, not burn it down.”
- Be philosophical. Throughout the ordeal, my neighbor was calm. Though obviously in distress, he knew nothing could be done but to pick up the pieces and go on. He said, “It is what it is.”
- Prepare for emergencies well in advance. Get a fireproof file cabinet and/or safe approved for storage of media such as thumb drives, external hard drives, etc. Store these in zip lock bags to prevent water damage.
- Make sure your homeowner’s insurance is up to date. You may need to upgrade your coverage. Take video or photographs of your entire home, closets and dresser drawers open to show contents. It’s hard to remember everything when you have to make a list. Store the photos off site, online, or in the fireproof media safe.