Did that just strike terror in your heart? Is your pulse racing right now? It should be.
Fire has played a transformative role in the lives of our ancestors, especially since they built houses and tried to heat them, meaning their home could burn to the ground, killing the occupants or best case, rendering them helpless and reliant on other community members for food, clothes and other sustenance.
And sometimes, fire strikes very close to home – or at home.
Yesterday, my friend nearly lost her home. She lit an advent candle on her kitchen table that was surrounded by evergreen boughs. Then she forgot about it and went to bed. Her religious devotional tribute combined with fatigue nearly cost her dearly.
Thankfully, due to a WORKING SMOKE DETECTOR, she is alive today and her house only needs a thorough cleaning and new carpet – not to mention a new kitchen table, of course and a few other items that burned.
Candles look so innocent and beautiful, but they aren’t.
Another friend lost her son, house, pets and all belongings except for the clothes she was wearing to escape and her car in the driveway a year ago August. I can’t even begin to explain the devastation to this woman. And the great irony – she was (and is) a firefighter.
Fires move so quickly, once they start. There is often no prayer of containing the fire or for escape.
I’m a third generation fire daughter, wife and mother.
My son retired last week and I must tell you, I won’t miss that constant underlying nagging worry.
Being third generation, and having had a house fire of my own about 25 years ago, let me share with you my house rules:
House Fire Prevention Rules
- No open flames in the house. Nada. Not ever. No candles. Period. Yes, my kids hated me, right up until one of them became a firefighter himself. Try these flickering battery operated candles instead. You can find them at places like WalMart. They are beautiful and much safer.
- My fireplace does not burn logs, which create chimney residue. My fireplaces are gas and the flame is always contained behind a glass door. Never go to sleep or leave with the fireplace burning. Keep your emergency shutoff key in the valve.
- No real Christmas trees. If I was going to have a real tree, and I did for awhile, no lights. Lights get hot and electronics short out. Ever see how quickly a dry tree goes up in flames? Is it really worth the risk? My mother tells of when my grandfather grabbed their burning Christmas tree and ran out the door with it, throwing it in the snow outside. Everyone was lucky in their case. No so for others.
- Fire extinguisher resides in the corner in the kitchen. If you need it, you don’t have time to hunt for it. Mine is in view, not terribly stylish, but safe.
- No leaving things cooking in the house unattended. That means no oven autotimer meals, no crock pots when an adult isn’t home. Nada. It can’t burn or malfunction if it’s not turned on.
- No cars starting in the garage for warmup, or running inside even for a couple minutes, EVER. My neighbors accidentally killed three family members this way and it’s a sight I never forgot. This includes, by the way, remote start. Remote starts should require two separate buttons to be pushed simultaneously or some safety feature that does not allow you to accidentally start the vehicle without being aware that the vehicle was started. Never, ever, remote start a vehicle in a garage. Why? Ever get distracted? Me neither!
- Battery replacement and testing of smoke alarms every Easter. See the here for information about a new type of 10-year smoke alarm with a sealed battery compartment.
- Carbon monoxide sensors/alarms. Preferably in both the furnace area and the sleeping areas. These make great, if not exciting, Christmas gifts. What better way to say “I love you and want you around.”
- Irons should have auto-shutoffs. I personally hate this because I’m a quilter. But I want to be a quilter with a house and without my quilts going up in flames because I forgot to turn the iron off and the cat knocked it on the floor.
- Matches are secured. That means from kids and from pets. One of my husband’s acquaintances’ young grandsons was fascinated by matches, took them to bed and hid under the covers while playing with them…and you’ve already guessed the rest. They wound up filing bankruptcy in addition to the loss of their home and pets.
- No smoking on the property. That means anywhere on the property, not just in the house. Why? Guess what happened a few years ago when a well-intentioned smoker put their cigarette “out” and threw the butt in the trash that was sitting beside the house.
- No outside fires close to the house, and none without a hose close by, just in case.
- No outside fires at all when it’s dry – like a drought in the summer or the early spring before things turn green.
- Unplug appliances not in use. They can’t short out if they aren’t plugged in.
- Be very vigilant of dust near extension cords and such. If an electrical short should occur, dust, as in dust bunnies or lint near an outlet combusts immediately. This is actually what caused my own house fire back in the 1990s. Fortunately, I was home at the time and the fire started in the basement laundry room which had a concrete floor. You don’t have any dust bunnies, right???
- Clean out the dryer vents and vent pipes. If you have a plastic vent pipe, replace it with metal.. Lint combusts too, and dryers involve a heating element. Yes, I have another family member whose college-age son came home to do laundry and the dryer caught fire. The apartment did burn, but not to the ground and the people and pets escaped with only about 6 months of inconvenience. Of course, his laundry escapades are now the family joke that he will never outlive – but that’s only funny because no one died. (See you Christmas Eve, Firebug. Trying to find a smoke alarm ornament for your Christmas tree. Just sayin…)
- No going to bed or leaving with the clothes dryer running. By the time you realize there’s a problem, it’s too late.
- No plug in type air fresheners. They heat up, which is how they dissipate that lovely smell, but sometimes they catch fire and burn.
- Have your furnace checked and serviced regularly. Change the filters twice a year. Not only does this protect you, it saves money on heating too.
- Do not grill, as in BBQ grill, right beside the house. Yes, I know this should be intuitive, but sometimes it’s just not. You don’t really want “grilled house,” melted siding or worse, now do you?
Call me paranoid if you want – but I’d prefer the term alive and vigilant😊
I want you to be too.
I don’t want fire to be your legacy.
Fire – A Sad Family Legacy
My father’s Camp Custer military record during WWI refers to him as a fireman. When I saw that detail, I couldn’t help but wonder if my father remembered the house fire that took his brother’s life when he was a mere child?
Did my father remember running terrified from the flames that consumed everything? Of course he did. How could you ever forget that?
Was I named for the memory of that child?
Robbie, whose name was Robert, was born in June of 1898 while the family was living in Arkansas. By 1900, they had moved back to Tennessee, to Estes Holler, in Claiborne County. The census tells us that my grandfather had fallen on hard times and not worked for 6 months of the previous census year, meaning from June 1, 1899 to May 31, 1900, according to the census instructions.
Did this have something to do with why they moved back from Arkansas? Possibly. The family story was that William George Estes, my grandfather, was a hard drinking man who loved to fish but who didn’t much care to work. In Springdale, Arkansas, Ollie Bolton Estes, his wife, ran a boarding house and Will fished.
By 1900, Ollie was probably pregnant again, and if not, would be shortly. In any case, my father was born in October of 1901.
After returning to Claiborne County, Will, Ollie and family lived in a cabin along the little creek that ran through Estes Holler. A holler, for those not from Appalachia, is the little valley between two small ridges. The entire area IS hills and hollers.
Sometime around 1907, the cabin caught fire. Some people said Ollie was outside in the yard. Some said she was at a party. Oddly, no one commented about where William George might have been, only the mother.
This is a picture of a Ollie, whose son had recently burned to death in that fire. The look of sorrow on her face is palpable. We know the photo was taken between the births of her two daughters, Margaret born in 1906, in arms, and Minnie who was born in 1908 and not in the photo. We know that the boys are Estel, the oldest, my father in front, about 5 years old and Joseph Dode, two years younger than my father. Robbie was dead by this time, so the fire happened before this 1907 photo.
Reportedly, the family Bible was also burned in this fire. Along with any other records and photos.
Everything burned, including Robbie.
Surely Robbie was buried in the family or the church cemetery, but there is no stone, at least not one that is carved, to mark his short life.
His little body lays here someplace in an unmarked grave, probably near his brother, Sammie who died in 1893.
Estel, the oldest child, was about 9 or 10 at the time, and he tried his best to get Robbie out, but Robbie crawled under the bed to hide, where he burned to death.
The family said that Ollie in particular, was never right after the fire, never the same. She was probably pregnant at the time with Minnie, born in 1908.
I know the fire and Robbie’s death haunted Estel as well throughout his life, in various ways, none of them good. He blamed himself. Estel drank throughout his life, affecting his entire family – a truly sad story told by his daughter.
My father would have been about 5 at the time and surely remembered that horror. He escaped those flames, but I don’t think he truly ever escaped entirely.
Years later, Uncle George (who was really a cousin) would come to own the land where the cabin that burned once stood.
George planted a willow to honor the child who died four years before he was born.
When Uncle George told me the story of Robbie’s death, standing on this very spot about 1990, I stared, transfixed, at this willow, fallen, it’s life spent too soon. It too was dead. Was nothing to ever live here? Is this land cursed?
I realized that in that moment, in that place, my family’s life was forever transformed here. The horrible reality sunk in, like swampwater seeping into my soul with icy fingers.
I felt sick.
Sick for Robbie, for my grandparents but especially my grandmother who was blamed by at least some, for Estel, and for my father.
My uncle died here, a child who suffered a horrific death, on that very spot. Right where that willow lay.
My father ran out of the door, but never, ever discussed that day.
The family left the area not long after.
This fire also killed what was left of my grandparent’s already ailing marriage. Escaping the geography couldn’t cure the pain.
That fire was a fork in the road, in so many ways, sending the survivors on paths they had never anticipated and surely didn’t want to travel.
My father drowned his sorrows with alcohol as well, many times, creating new problems. He also drowned his marriages, as did my grandfather, and eventually – he drowned himself. I was 7 and heartbroken.
Grief kills over and over again.
A generation later, my (former) husband would be a volunteer firefighter, with me being known at the station as 928 and a half. That’s the nod to the wife (or spouse – some public servants are females) for her important but often nearly invisible role in supporting the firefighters.
My son would join the ranks on his 16th birthday, officially, because he couldn’t volunteer before then.
My son devoted his career to public service, both as a firefighter and police officer on a Public Safety Department where the officers served in both capacities. I’ll be writing about him soon, but for now, please simply incorporate the lessons learned by decades of being a “fire family” and heed those warnings this holiday season and year round.
Fire is quick – much quicker than you are. One tiny misstep can have devastating and deadly consequences.
Forever is forever. The results trickle down through generations.
Please, please be vigilant this holiday season.
No open flames.
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