Reflections After A Devastating House Fire

Reflections After a Devastating House Fire

Monday, January 8th, 2018.
Grandpa’s House Is Destroyed.

For the past two years, my husband and I have been full-time caregivers to my grandfather who suffers from dementia. One of us is with him around the clock, Sunday evening through Friday evening, taking weekends off for a break.

Over the past few months my husband has taken on the roll of caregiver alone as grandpa’s behavior has become increasingly inappropriate around females, including myself. It’s a sad, but common personality change that comes with this disease.

It worked out to be very fortunate that Jerry was the one staying with Dada the night of January 7th, because in hindsight I’m not sure how things would have gone had I been the one there.

It was sometime between 3 and 4 am Monday morning when the smoke alarms woke Jerry out of a sound sleep. He went downstairs to determine why the alarms were going off, and immediately saw flames engulfing a corner of the sunroom where Dada normally spends his days.

Realizing that the fire was already too much in progress to try to fight it, Jerry quickly grabbed the cordless phone to call 911 as he ran upstairs to wake up my grandfather.

We actually had security cameras in Dada’s bedroom and in the office which were recording during the fire. My tech-savvy uncle was able to recover the footage from the cameras days after the fire, and we were able to watch Jerry’s quick thinking actions after the fact.

Jerry rushed into my grandfather’s bedroom and woke him up, telling him the house was on fire and that they needed to get out. Dada moved at an impressive speed as he got himself up out of the bed and on his feet. Jerry ran out of the bedroom and was back within seconds with some clothes to bundle my grandfather up in. It was still dark and freezing outside (it got down to 19*F that night), and all my grandpa had on was an undershirt and shorts.

Quickly Jerry slipped some sweat pants over my grandpa’s legs and threw a coat on him, and guided him toward the door in the office that led down some stairs and outside through the garage below. By this time smoke was already coming up the stairs to the top floor. Dada started heading out while Jerry ran back and grabbed his backpack of clothes and Dada’s shoes, and then hurried to the exit himself.

We’ve been able to determine from the camera footage that the entire upstairs was completely whited out with smoke within a minute and a half of Jerry and my grandfather leaving the upstairs office to head down to the garage.

Reflections After a Devastating House Fire

Some neighbors saw what was going on and invited my grandpa and Jerry to come into their home to warm up while firefighters rushed onto the scene. It was bitter cold outside. Jerry himself only had on shorts with bare feet. Thank God for their hospitality, especially at four in the morning!

My grandfather sobbed as he watched his house burn. Although his mind is going, in that moment he was very much present in the reality of what was happening. Fifty years ago he built that home from scratch. It’s where my dad and his siblings grew up. It’s where I celebrated my very first birthday, and where all of our family holidays were spent.

Although the home ended up being a total loss, we were all so incredibly thankful that the Father protected Jerry and Dada and got them out in time. Both were fine, although Jerry was pretty shaken up for several days afterward. It was traumatizing for him, but he was a hero that day.

We still aren’t sure what caused the fire. It could have been electrical, or it could have been caused by the wood stove on the porch.

Experiencing such a devastating house fire opened my eyes in several ways. 

Of course, the most immediate realization is how quickly someone you love can be taken from you. I was at home sound asleep when all of this drama was unfolding. I could have lost my husband or my grandfather, or both, in one terrible moment. Praise God we only lost things.

Reflections After a Devastating House Fire

Secondly, our first responders don’t get enough credit for what they do. These men got out of their warm, cozy beds at three in the morning to rush to my grandfather’s house to make sure everyone was out okay and to fight that fire until it was completely out.

It was so cold that the driveway became a sheet of ice from the water hose’s spray, yet the firefighters pressed on ’til the ‘all clear’ was given. We are so fortunate to have a society where brave men and women rush into danger on a daily basis to help others in need. We can’t thank these good folks enough.

Although we’re still not sure if my grandpa’s wood stove is what caused the fire or not (there may have been some electrical issues at play), Jerry and I have become much more conscious of the safety of the wood stove in our own home.

I’ve actually stopped burning wood in it overnight, opting to use the electricity instead. Not so great for our power bill but at least I don’t have to worry about the house catching fire while we sleep. I think we’re going to save up to get a water stove installed to heat our home. That way the fire (and bugs, and dirt) will be out of the house.

Reflections After a Devastating House Fire

Watching so many household items burn up or become otherwise destroyed by smoke and water made me want to purge my own home of unnecessary things and to better protect the things I do care about. I was reminded of how temporary possessions really are and how we shouldn’t hang on to stuff just for the sake of having it.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire I was overwhelmed by what a huge blessing it is to be surrounded by close family during such a traumatic event. There is great comfort in having such a strong support system of loved ones. My uncle was at the scene before the fire was out, and by early morning aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers- almost my entire extended family- had gathered at my uncle’s house just minutes from where my grandfather lived, all finding ways to pitch in to help.

People brought food, others went shopping for Dada’s immediate needs, some met with the fire chief  while others stayed with Dada to make sure he was comfortable and content. Seeing my family pull together like that made me realize how important it is that we stay close to each other.

This experience has been a particularly important lesson for our children about the danger of house fires. We’ve run multiple fire drills with them since, acting out various scenarios so that they are familiar with different ways of exiting the home quickly, through doors and windows, and having a predetermined meeting place outside of the home.

We also watched some YouTube videos of people testing their children to see if they would wake up and get out of the home if it filled with smoke, and we talked about the dangers of hiding instead of exiting (as one of the children in a video did!).

THIS has been a huge eye-opener for us because we never would have realized how unprepared we were for a house fire had we not practiced first!

Here’s what we learned when we set our smoke alarms off at 2am for an unannounced fire drill:

  • 3 out of 4 of our children did not wake up within the 2 minute time frame experts say is crucial for escaping a fire alive. Our youngest son, 6 years old, was the only one who woke up and came out of his room when the alarms went off. It took him about a minute and a half to get up and out. Our 8 year old daughter woke up after 2 1/2 minutes of the alarms going off. Our oldest two, 11 and 14 years old slept through the alarms and didn’t even wake up!
  • The smoke detectors in the children’s bedrooms didn’t go off when all the other ones did. We’d replaced the hardwired alarms with newer, battery operated ones. I didn’t realize that the alarms in their rooms wouldn’t go off until their rooms were already filling with smoke! We immediately replaced them with hardwired alarms again so that if smoke is detected in the living room the alarms will go off in all of the bedrooms and throughout the house simultaneously.
  • We bought fire extinguishers to keep in our bedroom (on one end of the house) and in the kitchen (the middle of the house) to have just in case we catch a fire before it gets out of control.

I’d really love to have those smoke alarms where you can record your own voice telling the children to wake up. Studies have shown that children will sleep through the loud siren but will wake up very quickly to the sound of their parent’s voice. Unfortunately, I’m not seeing any like this available on the market at this time.

I’d also like to put together an emergency box of blankets, water, and a first aid kit in our workshop, which is our designated meeting place away from the home. This way if we have to run out of the house in the middle of the night and it’s cold we’ll have something to wrap the kids up in.

Now that we’ve run these drills I definitely feel like we’d be more prepared to escape a house fire if, God forbid, we ever have one. I need to mark a once-a-month fire drill on our calendar to keep the kids in practice.

For now, my grandpa is in an apartment until my father, aunts, and uncle can find a new home for him. For a while Dada kept asking to go home, but after being in the new place for a few weeks he’s stopped asking. I don’t think he remembers the fire anymore. Actually, I’m sure he forgot about it ten minutes after leaving the scene that morning. Which is a blessing, really.



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