The BF and I were finishing off a day of birthday celebration by watching King Creole (Elvis!) when it started smelling like a campfire. Since this is not typically how our living room smells, I went to check it out. The kitchen was filling up with smoke. I sent the BF downstairs to see if one of the neighbors was having a backyard fire or something, but on his way out, he pointed out that the windows were only slightly open and wouldn’t let in that much smoke from a neighbor’s fire. Those words sunk in and I rushed to grab my phone and put on clothes.
You see, my father was a fireman, working his way up to Assistant Chief in Denver. For a couple of years, he ran their internal educational channel which included filming training exercises and all fires over two-alarm (meaning that more than one firehouse was called out, so really big fires). I happened to be in the car for a few of the big fires and was stuck watching these amazing men do their work. For hours. I also went on some planned training sessions. He also talked shop quite a bit.
On New Year’s Even 1997, at 10 minutes to midnight, our neighbor’s house caught fire. I heard “oh, look flames” and called 911 immediately, directing the firefighters toward using our walkway to lay the hoses. There was no more than 2 feet between their house and ours – two San Francisco Victorians made of wood. Their house was severely damaged and had to be rebuilt, but ours was unscathed. Go SFFD!
So when I saw a room filled with smoke with no reasonable explanation, I knew there was a fire somewhere, I just didn’t know where. We live in a 2-flat Victorian, built of wood. This was no joke.
Within 5 minutes 3 fire trucks and an SUV pulled up in front of our house. My anxiety had ratcheted up and they seemed to be taking their sweet time until they followed me upstairs and saw that it wasn’t a burnt dinner. I was told later they assumed that because it’s most often the case when a woman calls about smoke in the kitchen, which I remembered my father talking about. It hadn’t occurred to me because the oven hasn’t been on for days and there was nothing on the stove, but it makes sense in retrospect.
They kicked into high gear. One team cut off the gas & electricity. Another team was up on the roof, and up in the attic crawlspace. Another team kicked in the door to the unoccupied downstairs apartment.
Luckily, the handyman for the property lives next door and came out to help as soon as the fire trucks arrived and helped guide them around the property.
They found the fire in the downstairs bathroom, where a plumber had been welding copper pipes. The plumber (a man now in deep shit) did not properly cool down the copper, which rested very close to the old wood structure of the wall between the bathroom and the kitchen.
Copper retains heat, so the pipes radiated heat to wood, which then started smoldering as it got hotter. Since smoke (and heat) rises, it made its way into our kitchen.
The actual flames had just broken out when the firemen found the source, and they were able to put it out immediately with a fire extinguisher. This is an old house with old wood. The wood had been heating up, so once the flames broke out, it would have taken very little time for the whole house to be ablaze.
It took another hour or so for the firemen to suck out most of the smoke with their fans, turn the gas back on and get an engineer from Alameda Municipal Power to evaluate the wiring, then turn the lights back on.
The firefighters were efficient, effective, professional and caring.
When we came back upstairs to a torn apart kitchen (just stuff moved around, nothing damaged), we found the door to the front room closed. Angel was on our on our bed, calm, but asking for attention.
Today, our kitchen smells like a campfire, but our clothes and bedroom escaped smoke damage. We’re still wobbly, but very, very grateful. We are not dwelling on what might have been, but instead focus on the positive. We are fine, our cat is fine. There’s no damage to our apartment, our clothes and furniture do not smell like smoke, and we lost nothing. We’ve seen an outpouring of friends offering help, which is heartwarming.
There are people around the world who have lost everything in floods just this past week. We know we are blessed. But this brush with loss is a heads up. Hug your loved ones. Know where your cat carrier is. Have a plan. Be grateful for everything you have. And call 911 when you smell/see smoke from an unidentified source.