November 5

The 15 Lessons I Learned From A House Fire

6  comments

The 15 Lessons I Learned From A House Fire | www.HerbalPrepper.comAre You Prepared for a House Fire?

Responsible people prepare for life’s emergencies- a layoff, weather events, extended power outages. As preppers, we keep extra food, water, batteries, and ammo on hand because you never know when an emergency is going to happen.  But, are you prepared for a house fire?

A couple of months ago, we had a house fire. I’d like to share with you what happened, what we did right, and what we did wrong, in the hopes that it will help others be better prepared for this type of emergency.

What Is A House Fire Really Like?

Unless you have been through one, you really won’t understand what being in a house with a fire is like. Ours was only a small fire, thankfully. I cannot even imagine what the horror of escaping from a large fire would be. I will do my best to describe the experience.

The tenants who live on the first floor of our house had an accidental grease fire which, by comparison to what could have happened, was a relatively small fire. We were all very lucky it didn’t spread further, and that the fire hadn’t gotten into the walls where it could have spread throughout the entire building.

Still, the fire did an amazing amount of expensive damage which took two months before repairs and cleaning were complete. The first floor kitchen had to be completely renovated replacing major appliances, cabinets and more. The smoke was dark, thick, and reached all the way to the third floor.

The smoke challenged our evacuation, making it both difficult to see and to breathe. Our stairwell filled with it, coating it, and turning it as dark as night. The second floor, where my office was, ended up coated in smoke when neighbors had rushed in looking to help, and left the door open.

Injuries were minor, limited to minor burns suffered by the older woman on the first floor who kept trying to put the fire out, not wanting to believe that it had passed that point. The heat alone burned her skin, not contact with the flames. As we age, our skin becomes thinner, and easier to burn. For more information on burn care, check out my online course on Herbal Burn Care. My husband had to force her out of the building.

My husband also had to carry our 5 year old daughter down the three flights of stairs. Even though we have practiced fire drills, our drills were only that- drills. The thick, dark smoke and the fright of this being a real fire had her frozen in place at the top of the stairs. He ended up inhaling some smoke, but thankfully that too was a minor situation. My 7 year old son did exactly as we practiced in our drills. So yes, drills are important. No, they are not foolproof. You must be able to adjust to the circumstances presenting themselves in that moment.

We had some major luck on our side. The fire was put out with a single, small fire extinguisher that happened to be in the car of a fireman who was driving on our street when he heard about the fire over his radio. He ran right in and put it out about a minute before the fire trucks reached the house. As you’ll see in the video below, forget minutes- seconds matter.

Frustrating fact: we had the same exact fire extinguisher upstairs, and didn’t bring it out with us. We had never practiced taking ours with us during our fire drills. 

When the trucks arrived, they had to chop holes into the walls to verify that the fire was contained. If it had made it into the walls, without seeing the flames, the fire could have spread up through all levels of the house very quickly. The speed at which a fire spreads is startling. As mentioned in this ABC News video, it used to be that you had an average of 17 minutes to get out of a burning hourse. That has been reduced to just 3 minutes due to modern construction, modern furniture, and our dependence on synthetics and plastics. With only 3 minutes to evacuate, every second counts.

Plastics and materials like vinyl siding present another problem, the inhalation of toxic fumes. It’s not just the smoke from wood burning that you are inhaling these days. Modern construction and home furnishings release a chemical soup of fumes into the air during a fire. This was true during our house fire as well. The smell of burnt plastic was intense. This would be the case whenever modern building materials are used, and it is certainly the norm in any city or suburban fire.

Just before the fire, I had been working out on my treadmill. When the smoke detectors went off, I didn’t even think anything of it. They were wired so that if a batter died in one of them, they all started to go off. Instead of running for the door, I grabbed my phone to call my husband who was in the basement to go check which smoke detector needed batteries.

The next thing I knew, the doorbell was ringing and the man from the first floor was yelling into the intercom to get out because there was a fire. I ordered the kids to grab their “GO Bags” (“Get Out” bags, aka bug out bags, emergency bags) and that’s when my husband burst in the door to make sure we got out.

To add another dimension to this event, I have a bad knee from a fall I took a few years back. It had gotten worse while I was working on my books, Prepper’s Natural Medicine and Prepping for a Pandemic, I spent long hours sitting in front of the computer screen and did little to improve my knee. However, for the two months before the fire, I had made a consistent effort to strengthen my knee with a multilevel approach of exercise, diet, supplementation, and herbal medicine. I still had to go down the stairs with a straight left leg and then bending the right leg, but without having taken those actions, it would have taken me significantly longer.

Once outside, I was sitting on the neighbor’s lawn when I realized I was outside in just bike shorts and a tank top with no shoes on. I had been working out and was just about to grab a shower before the fire started. I reached into my GO Bag and grabbed a longer t-shirt and some slip on cloth sneakers. If we didn’t have these bags packed and placed right where we could get them without having to stop during an emergency, and if the fire had burned the house down, I would have been left barefoot and half dressed.

It’s been a couple of months, and we have had time to think about everything that happened. These are the things I am left wondering about and focusing on:

  • What if the fire had happened when my husband wasn’t home? Would I have been strong enough to carry my daughter in all of that smoke down all those stairs with a bad knee?
  • What if we had to evacuate down the fire escape instead of the stairs? Could I have gotten both kids to risk climbing down that during an emergency? It is far more intimidating than the stairs.
  • I never want to look down that stairway not being able to see anything but smoke again.
  • What if the fire had happened at night, and we had to go wake up the kids? Would we still have gotten out quickly?
  • What if the right person with the right tool and skillset hadn’t been driving by at the right time?
  • Our children are worried there will be another fire, and that being so high up will leave us trapped.
  • The amount of time, effort, and expense to put the house right again were halacious.
  • We will only be as secure as the least careful/aware individual in the house. As long as we live in a multifamily house, we have no control or influence over what goes on in their unit.
  • If I were forced to crawl, as is recommended when there is smoke, my knee would have been a far more significant problem than it was.

The Top 15 Lessons We Learned From A House Fire

We do our best to minimize the risk of accidents and to be prepared for emergencies. However, accidents happen. Here are the top 15 what we have learned from this one:

  1. Be as strong and as healthy as you can be. You can make whatever excuses you like now, but smoke and fire won’t care.
  2. Financial preparedness is more imporant than most would like to admit.
  3. Have easily accessible emergency bags- they should not take extra time to grab. Seconds matter!
  4. Don’t wait until you have the perfect backpack to put an emergency bag together. Anything is better than nothing.
  5. It’s great to have all sorts of cool, ultra-light, tacticool gear for your emergency bag. After a fire it’s also great to have a pair of shoes, a change of clothes, and some cash in there too.
  6. Have a duplicate set of emergency bags some where off site in case you have to leave yours behind.
  7. Accessibility of fire extinguishers on all floors and in multiple places on each floor (our house is so old, it is not required by law to have these).
  8. Practice using using a fire extinguisher at least once or twice a year. They only cost about $25, and a campfire is a good opportunity to practice without making a mess inside your house.
  9. You won’t put a big fire out with a single small fire extinguisher, and you shouldn’t try. But. you might be able to stop a small fire from getting out of hand. Learn to recognize the difference!
  10. Practice fire drills. Fine, some people may freeze during the real thing, but others will know exactly what to do and where to go.
  11. Practice your drills pretending someone is injured. How do you have to adapt your evacuation plan?
  12. Practice a fire drill at night when you can’t see. It’s a completely different experience.
  13. Remember to put a cloth or shirt collar over your mouth and nose to make breathing easier.
  14. Be comfortable, but be ready to evacuate out the door at a moment’s notice. Unless you are in bed sick or sleeping, get up, get dressed, and be ready to respond, even if you work from home.
  15. You are not guaranteed another tomorrow. Don’t wait to live the kind of life you really want.

Financial Preparedness

I know times are tough. The lousy economy and my husband losing a good paying job operating heavy equipment back in 2008 is what got our family into preparedness in the first place. However, this fire also gave us the opportunity to see just how expensive a fire can be without actually feeling that hit ourselves. For the sake of clarity, the house belongs to another family member who doesn’t live here. However, I do the bookkeeping and my husband maintains the property (snow removal, trash removal, general maintenance, etc).

Insurance will eventually pay, but the upfront costs were out of pocket. The cost to repair the kitchen and clean multiple floors was huge. There wasn’t time to shop around for deals. Being a rental unit, the tenants had to have a working kitchen ASAP. If we had to shoulder that expense ourselves, we would have had to go deep into debt to do so.

We have spent time, energy, and money on building our food storage, water storage, ammunition, communications equipment, medical supplies, and naturally, herbal supplies. It’s now time to put some serious effort into the financial preparedness end of things. While I won’t be disclosing my personal financial situation, there are things that are good, some not so good, but there is always room for improvement. If you haven’t considered financial preparedness yet yourself, ask yourself if you could renovate your kitchen, replacing all appliances, cabinets, and paying for electricians, plumbers, and carpenters without going into debt or without waiting for a check from the insurance company? If not, it is time to start considering it.

I cannot advise you financially. That’s not my area of expertise. However, I can provide a few resources to get you started.

  1. The Penny-Pinching Prepper: This is a great little book by Bernie Carr that I need do a full review on at some point. In a nutshell, it covers a whole bunch of different ways to save money, especially when it comes to prepping. She covers how to raise funds and ways to tighten the belt that brought me back to when my husband was laid off, right back to my prepping roots. Bernie has lots of great ideas, and the book is worth the very frugal price.
  2. The Prepper’s Financial Guide: Again, this deserves a more thorough review. Jim Cobb writes top notch prepper books, and this is no exception. While this book is more focused on preparing your finances for an economic collapse, but the skills and concepts explained in this book apply here as well. Again, ideas for debt reduction and increasing cash flow are covered, but there is a longer view presented here with investment ideas that are more in line with preparedness goals.
  3. Dave Ramsey: Lots of free information on how to get out of debt.
  4. The Millionaire Next Door: This has nothing to do with preparing for a layoff or economic collapse. Instead, I’m recommending this book because it is inspirational and puts wealth into perspective.

Health and Fitness

I know, there are a thousand excuses not to exercise. I invented a few of them. I know all about how pain, injury, or illness can prevent a person from being as fit as they might otherwise be. There really are times when people are so infirm that they cannot be expected to exercise, never mind evacuate themselves from a burning building.

However, most cases are just excuses. And I’ve made up a few of those too.

Can’t move because you you have a bad knee? Been there. Still there, sort of, but I’m working my way out of that. I got stronger and can get up the stairs easily now and without pain. I still have trouble going down stairs, and I cannot rest on my knees, but it’s just a matter of time.

Don’t have the money or time to go to a gym? I didn’t either, so I joined LiveExercise.com and did their Launchpad sequence which helped strengthen my knee over time, for free. If you can afford Netflix, you can afford LiveExercise. And even if you don’t think you can afford the $7 a month for that service, use YouTube where there are literally thousands of workout videos for every level of fitness, including workouts for people who are elderly or sedentary. Don’t have the money for weights? Use cans, water bottles, milk jugs, or resistance bands. Here’s a whole page of resistance bands, some of which are intended for heavy lifting. So, you can get a tough workout on any budget. Is arthritis the problem? Exercise and movement help arthritis and there are herbs and supplements that can help improve your joint health.

Unless you are in a coma or paralized, you can probably improve your level of fitness. I’m not perfect- far from it- and I don’t mean to preach. But, you don’t know when your life or the life of someone you know may depend upon your physical strength for survival. True, adrenaline can help a person do things they never would have otherwise. Don’t outsource your responsibility to your loved ones to adrenaline alone. All it takes is a committment to get stronger to give yourself and those around you a better chance during a disaster. Any improvement is better than none.

One Last Thing…

After going through something as traumatic as a fire, you begin to look at your life differently. Yes, I have purchased some new gear, such as this instant fire escape for each of the bedrooms that do not have a fire escape. But, the gear is minor. It’s the mindset that changes.

For years, we have wanted to move to our camp in Maine, but haven’t. There are a variety of reasons, work, family, our trees won’t be ready to harvest to fund some of the more expensive aspects of building, etc. We’re looking at about 5-8 years before moving is a viable option. Acknowledging this was a hard and bitter pill to swallow.

After this experience, however, we have decided that rather than wait out that time in a city apartment, to look for land and a house more condusive to preparedness where we can have an herbal farm, honeybee yard, and onsite school- all the things we had planned for Maine- right here in Southeastern, MA. When we do move to Maine, which remains our ultimate goal, we can either leave other people in charge of the herb farm & school, or sell it. This won’t be cheap, so it’s up to us to get creative and pay way more attention to financial preparedness.

The point is, the fire put in perspective what we want most, which is a more self-sufficient, sustainable life, and we’re not going to wait until someday when there are no more family obligations, and we are free to leave the area. That someday may not come. It could literally all go up in smoke.

What is it that you really want? Don’t wait for a house fire to be your wake up call. Don’t wait for everything to be perfect or for the stars to align.  There is no guarantee that you will have another tomorrow. Find a way to live the life you want now.

Please note: the house in the featured image at the top of the page is not our house. Our damage was on the interior. Here are some photos of that.

House Fire 1

House Fire 2

House Fire 3

House Fire 4


Tags

Burn care, House fire, Smoke inhalation, Survive


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  1. Thanks Cat for sharing your experience. Although it brought back some very painful memories of when my house blew up, it also made me realize that I have been lax in addressing a few areas. If I might add some other things to be aware of…
    The “head in the sand” mentality of “that will never happen to me” when it comes to a fire burning up everything you own in a matter of 15 minutes needs to be adjusted. Please remember that, as it was in Cat’s situation, a life changing fire doesn’t have to start in your own home.

    Things that helped me: Fireproof safes DO WORK. If you don’t want your valuables to smell like smoke, investing in a fire and water proof safe will help. Mine ended up being buried in a ton of rubble, but I still have my birth certificate and highschool diploma.

    Things I learned : trying to fill out the insurance company’s Inventory sheet of my belongings was emotionally draining. I kept putting it off because it was like reliving the fire. I had some “inventory” pictures in the safe, but only of the expensive things. The emotional state that I was in after losing my home made trying to remember how many DVDs, bras, underwear, socks,pants, shirts etc I had owned was a near impossible task.

    Nothing beats having a video of what you own. Grab a friend and your smartphone, and walk around both the inside and outside of your home. If you remember when and where, or how much you paid for an item, put it in the video. Don’t forget to open all your drawers and cabinets as well. Should you ever have to file a claim, it will help you to remember the $80 negligée you had tucked away, or if you’re a shoe lover, you will know exactly what number to write on the Inventory list under “# of pairs of shoes”. If you’re a person who stocks up big time on every food item, make sure you include it. The added benfit of having a friend help you with the video will help you deal with filling out the Inventory list should something happen.

    Get video of, or take pictures of the make and models of any appliances (if you own them), and all TV’s, laptops, smartphones, tablets, routers, monitors, etc. Don’t forget DVRs if you have satellite TV. Same for cable. Just because your house burned down, doesn’t mean that DISH will just write off the cost of their equipment.

    The reason for taking video of the outside is because some insurance policies will cover damage to trees and shrubs that you planted, up to a certain dollar amount.
    Storage sheds, carports. generators or tools inside may not be covered. If something is not “physically attached” to your home, it more than likely won’t be covered under the policy for your home. Dont forget to take a pic of that satellite dish as well!

    If you can afford to pay a little extra for your home or renters insurance, make sure that you get the Replacement policy that requires that the insurance company covers your items “as New”. It’s amazing how quickly the value of an item depreciates. If you don’t, you won’t be able to replace that TV that you paid a grand for a year or two ago.
    The insurance companies have a system that figures out how much the same model of that TV has depreciated in value during the time you owned it. If you don’t have proof of when you purchased it, they will go by the Manufactureres date.

    Sentimental items aren’t worth what you think they should be.
    However, if you have antiques,a large gun collection, expensive jewelry, high end computer systems, etc, you’ll want to get a ” rider” added on your policy. There is a limit to how much the insurance companies will pay out for high priced items.

    If your car(s) that are parked outside your dwelling are damaged from say, part of your roof falling on them, and you don’t have comprehensive car insurance coverage, expect to pay for the repairs yourself.

    Thieves don’t care if your home burned down. I had a storage shed that wasn’t affected by the fire, and as my safes reeked so badly of smoke, I hid them in there soon after they were recovered from the rubble. That night someone broke into the shed, and stole not only a few old coins and a $5 silver certificate that were in one of the safes, but everything else they thought they could make a buck off of, including my survival gear. Even the CHA unit that miraculously survived the fire was stolen.

    Smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are a necessity in all homes. If you tend to be a heavy sleeper, look for the types that have extra loud alarms. Mine failed to wake me.

    Lastly: once the fire is out, and if the fire department says it OK for you to do so, have a neighbor/friend take pictures or video of the OUTSIDE of your dwelling, and of the property immediately surrounding it before the fire investigators start their investigation. If you’ve forgotten to take video or pictures of an item, you’ll have proof of ownership.
    Don’t touch or move anything when you do so! Once the fire department and or ATF get done doing their job, chances are moat things will have been moved or submerged under a pile of ashes.

    Your homeowner’s insurance policy normally covers the cost for food and board for a certain length of time. However, you don’t get reimbursed until after you submit the receipts.
    I am so grateful that The Red Cross paid for 2 nights un a motel, and provided me with basic necessities like a toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb, washcloth, and a bar of soap. All’s I had on was a nightgown bra and panties. The hospital went to cut them off of me to check my wounds, but I fought it. Even in my state of mind, I knew that they were the only clothes I owned.

    1. Thank you for sharing that, Dawn. All of those points are very important. There are certainly more than 15 things that can be learned from a house fire, and as time goes on, more will probably come up. Just now I was thinking of all the wires in people’s homes, and how once I was sitting on my bed with my my laptop when the chord started sparking. Somehow, the wires had become exposed from the bend that was perpetually in the chord at that point. I pulled it out of the laptop and the wall, but it had startled the daylights out of me. People run wires behind furniture, under carpets, and everywhere. None of them are easy to reach, and a spark could start without anyone seeing it.

  2. On February 16th, 1986, through a series of mishaps, we had a fire in the garage. The temperatures were in the teens that night. The garage was under the bedroom of three of my young children. The electric went out and the fire broke through the corner of the garage. Everyone got out of the smokey house; relatives lived next door and that is where we went..in our pajamas and bare feet. We were told that another 15 minutes and the five of us would have died from smoke inhalation. The exploding cans in the garage woke my husband up.Despite the fact that we were safe, and God was good, the event bothered my husband and I for a long time. It was four months before we were able to live in the house.

    1. Very glad to hear you made it all out safely! Sorry to hear about all the damage. I often wonder about some of the things we have stored that we need- alcohol-based herbal remedies, alcohol to make those remedies, oils, never mind what’s in the garage. Four months is a long time to have to live somewhere else.

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