Burning question: Do you have a plan?

My wife and I are among the most neurotic people on the planet when it comes to fire. To wit: I have an almost obsessive-compulsive need to check every dial on the stove exactly four times before leaving the house, even if the oven hasn’t been used in days. It’s as if I fear the burners on the stove have a Stephen King-like mind of their own, and are bent on burning down the house.
My wife has a similar fear of candles. Better to light one candle than curse the darkness? Not her. She would much rather bump into the kitchen barstools in a blackout.
In both our cases, there are good reasons for our fear — or, at least, reasons that are comprehensible.
When I was 4 years old, back in the Mesozoic period of the mid-1960s, my bed caught on fire. The culprit was a nightlight that was too close to the bedding.
Initially, I hadn’t a clue the sheets were smoldering. There was no alarm in my bedroom. (The battery-powered smoke alarm, a ceiling fixture that many of us now take for granted, would not even have a patent until 1969.) I simply woke up parched and my eyes were watering, and so I wandered into my parents’ bedroom. I told them my throat hurt and I wanted a drink of water. My father good-naturedly stumbled out of bed to fill a glass for me. But he smelled the smoke, and together we discovered that since I had left my room, the bed had ignited and it looked now like we could toast marshmallows in the little bonfire beside my bureau.
The story has a happily anticlimactic ending: Moments later, my parents and my older brother and I were standing outside in a road called Covent Place — among my favorite names of all the streets on which I have lived — while firefighters extinguished the blaze. There was smoke damage and my bedroom had seen better days, but it wasn’t long before we were back in the house.
The following summer in a village six hours to the north of Covent Place, my wife — then a little girl — watched the curtains in her upstairs hallway abruptly go up in flames. The town had lost power and she and her sisters were using candles to navigate the dark corridors of the old house, and suddenly the drapes in a window on the second floor were ablaze. Fortunately, this tale also has a pretty dull conclusion: Her mother had an extinguisher in the kitchen, and she smothered the fire within seconds.
Today marks the start of National Fire Safety Week, and the theme this year is “Practice Your Escape Plan.” It could also be, “If our house catches on fire, we’ll just jump out the windows,” since that is about how much thought most of us have put into our escape plans if we discover while watching “Rescue Me” on television that we do indeed need to be rescued. A poll conducted for the National Fire Protection Association indicates that only a third of American households that profess to have a plan have actually practiced their escape, and I find even that number a tad optimistic.
And yet fires happen all the time. Vermont firefighters respond to close to 2,000 structure fires every year. According to the Insurance Information Institute, the odds that your house will catch fire are roughly one in 225 — greater, obviously, if you happen to have a fireplace or own a woodstove, or you live in an older house with aging, more eccentric wiring. While one in 225 aren’t the odds you would want at a gaming table in Vegas, they are a lot higher than being killed in a plane crash. And certainly we spend a lot of time contemplating that possibility.
Consequently, take a moment this week and discuss with your family what you would do if the curtains went up like a tiki torch or you woke up and your bed smelled like the ashes from last night’s campfire. And while you’re at it, check the batteries in the smoke alarms. Perhaps the odds of a fire in your house are small … but my wife and I can attest that they are not insignificant.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on October 7.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

3 thoughts on “Burning question: Do you have a plan?

  1. Kelli Edwards says:

    Hello there!
    I enjoyed your blog and am glad that you are encouraging fire safety. I would also like to recommend the StoveTop FireStop to prevent kitchen fires.
    StoveTop FireStop is a 12-ounce automatic fire suppressor that attaches magnetically under the vent hood over a stovetop. When a stovetop fire occurs and the flame reaches the StoveTop FireStop, the fire suppressing powder is automatically released onto the fire.
    StoveTop FireStop has a five year shelf life, deploys in seconds and reacts automatically when flames reach its actuation device. Check out the website at http://www.stovetopfirestop.com.
    Thank you!

  2. TheFearOfFire says:

    Hey, Chris – I do that with my stove too – check it several times to make sure that the gas has not decided to light itself! And I grew up surviving at least two, night-time fires that got out of control. I will never forget how awesome, how terribly beautiful, and horrendously frightening those orange flames looked against the dark sky of a long-ago, but deeply remembered childhood night. This past April three members of a family in my neighborhood died in a fire. They lived in an apartment of an old home – just like I do. So, I pray for safety and do my best. And I check and recheck the stove before I go out (or go to bed).

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