Why you should have a fire extinguisher or How I torched my kitchen the day after I sold it.

My husband and I recently sold our house and bought a new one. A week ago, I was at the “aggressive packing” phase. We had keys to the new house, I had boxes on every flat surface in the kitchen, and I was waiting for the dishwasher to complete its cycle so I could finish packing all the kitchenware and tape the boxes. One particularly large box was on the flat-top oven, filled with all the things that were too big to put in a normal-sized box—cookie sheets, a wok, a griddle. My plan was to fill the rest of the box with light-weight plastic items, as soon as they were washed, so it wouldn’t be too heavy. I added something to the box, pushed it back out of the way, and went upstairs to pack something else while I waited for the dishwasher.

Apparently, when I pushed the box back, I bumped a few knobs and turned two of the burners on. A few minutes after I’d gone upstairs, the fire alarm went off. I’m still not sure which was louder—the fire alarm, or the shrieks of terror from the kids’ room when the alarm woke them. Now, at our house, having the fire alarm go off doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a fire. Before last Tuesday, the most recent alarm had been caused by a piece of plastic falling to the bottom of the dishwasher and melting. So I went downstairs, thinking something in the dishwasher had fallen into the heating element again.

Nope. Flames. On the stove. And smoke. Lots of smoke. I grabbed the fire extinguisher from the garage and put the fire out. Then I went upstairs to get my daughters, who were still screaming their heads off. I put them in the garage and peaked into the kitchen, trying to decide how bad the damage was—did I need to call the fire department? Open the back door and try to get the smoke out?

Flames. Again. This time I grabbed the fire extinguisher from under the kitchen sink and put the fire out again—or at least I thought it was out. It was hard to tell with smoke and fire extinguisher residue everywhere.

Without shoes or a phone, the children and I went in search of a neighbor. Hubby was taking stuff to the new house, so he was temporarily out of the picture. So was our next-door neighbor, who didn’t come to the door when I knocked and rang the bell. Fortunately for me, another neighbor was out walking her dogs and asked if I need help. “Yes!” I borrowed her phone to call 911 and the kids gradually let a pair of dogs and some cartoons distract them from their terror.

The emergency dispatcher asked the normal questions—what’s your name, what’s the emergency, where are you. I didn’t know what phone number I was calling from, so she had me stay on the line (they might do that anyway) and told me not to go back into the house to see if the fire was out. After what felt like a long time, the dispatcher said she was sending the fire department. (My thoughts at the time—why didn’t you send them five minutes ago?)

Hubby beat the fire department. Per the dispatcher’s suggestion, he warned our neighbors that we had a fire. Our old place was a town home, so we actually shared walls with these neighbors. The cops came. The firemen came. Neighbors from across the street starting coming out in their pajamas to see what was going on.

It turned out that the second fire extinguisher did the trick, and the fire was already out when the fire department came. The firemen stayed for a while to blow the worst of the smoke out and monitor the carbon monoxide levels (it took a while for those to come down).

The kitchen, after about an hour of cleaning. The box at this time was in the back yard--it left a little burn mark in the grass.

The kitchen, after at least an hour of cleaning.

When they left, we surveyed the damage. My kids were exhausted, but safe. The microwave over the oven was destroyed, along with the box that had been sitting on the oven and a few things from nearby boxes. The cabinets on either side of the microwave had burn marks, and so did a small part of the countertop. And the smell of smoke and fire extinguisher residue had penetrated everything—the air conditioning was either on, or kicked on when it started to get hot, and it sucked the stench and the fine ash-like powder into every room of the house. It’s kind of a mess. A really big mess. But it could have been so much worse.

So why am I blogging about this when I normally blog about history or creative writing? First off, so people can learn from my mistake and not put boxes on their stoves, no matter how many other boxes are already cluttering up their kitchen. And more importantly, I’m writing this to encourage everyone to have a fire extinguisher.We had some damage in our kitchen, lost a few pans, and got smell and residue everywhere, but can you imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t had a fire extinguisher? Our town home is about five minutes from a fire station—probably closer if you have lights and a siren. But it still took them ten to fifteen minutes to arrive. That’s a lot of time for a fire to spread . . . to other cupboards, other rooms, other houses.

It’s a good idea to keep fire extinguishers in places where fires are likely to start: kitchens, garages, laundry rooms. It’s also a good idea to keep them near your bed. Sometimes a fire is too big to put out with a fire extinguisher (they only last a few seconds), but having one nearby can help you make a path to escape, or make a path to help small children. So if you don’t have a fire extinguisher (or two or three), please go and get one. When we had our fire, I purchased replacements within twenty-four hours. I’ll give all of you a week. Feel free to comment if you already have one and let me know where you keep it. Or let me know when you’ve stocked up. Oh, and be careful out there.

One of my new replacements.

One of my new replacements.