Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Dryer Fire

I thought my crust-less pumpkin pies were burning. I opened the oven, but they looked fine. Then I thought it was the shop-vac causing the odor. So did my husband, who was vacuuming, trying to clear out cobwebs in an open wall to determine the source of a water leak.

But soon he was rushing up the stairs to the kitchen where I was washing dishes.

“Where’s the fire extinguisher?” he asked.

Before I could answer, he spotted it, grabbed it. “There’s a fire in the laundry room,” he called bounding back downstairs.

“Do I need to call 911?” I asked.

“No,” he answered.

I rarely call it, but I’m the person 911 was designed for.

When I was a child, fire in an alley trashcan began to burn our back fence. It wasn’t anywhere near the house, but that didn’t stop me from leashing our dogs, scooping up the cage of white rats my sister and I kept as pets, and running across the street to take shelter at the Kiley’s until the fire was out, and the engine cruised quietly away.

Afterward I memorized the phone numbers for both the fire and police departments, but was plagued by nightmares in which I could never dial properly. I transposed numbers, or forgot them, or my finger slipped from the rotary dial. The advent of both the push-button phone and the universal emergency number did much to relieve my anxiety.

Part of me longed to dig out my cell phone (we don’t have a landline) and summon trained professionals to save us. But my husband said we didn’t need help and I trust him, so I went into I’m-cool-in-a-crisis mode, opening doors and windows upstairs, reassuring our cats crying in the cloud of foul smoke billowing into the living rom.

I turned off the oven, shoved my baked goods into the fridge, hoping they were still edible, pressed the damp dishtowel I’d been using over my nose, and headed to our basement and the smoke.

If the fire was indeed small and controllable, I understood Kevin’s reluctance to dial 911. Several years ago his mother had small kitchen fire, dialed help, and ended up living with us for months while our contractor haggled with the insurance company to replace not only the kitchen cabinets, but the flooring and wallboard throughout the house that was damaged from smoke, the fire-hose, and built-in sprinklers.

My husband, no doubt remembered that headache, and knew we had no friends or relatives to bunk with.

I found him in the laundry room, respirator strapped to his face, sliding a melted laundry basket filled with smoking towels away from the dryer.

In August, when he opened the wall in our laundry room, Kevin temporarily rerouted the dryer exhaust pipe. It ran across the ceiling from interior to exterior wall and had a small dip mid-run. It was here, he guessed, that lint built up and ignited. The flexible pipe burnt in two, one piece falling into the clean towels in the basket in front of the dryer. (As we’ve been tearing out walls and ceilings, we’ve taken down all our smoke detectors.)

The towels burned and the basket melted, as did the front of the dryer, licked by flames. The damage was minor: the toxic smell and smoke cleared once I plugged in fans and pulled in fresh air. Extinguisher-powder coated everything, and I lost some towels, a t-shirt, plus two laundry baskets. But my husband extinguished the blaze, even managing to fix the dryer’s fried control panel.

Once the cats settled down and it was clear we were safe, the shock and my competence wore off. I felt a bit shaky as I imagined other likely scenarios.

I usually forget about the laundry until I’m brushing my teeth before bed and realize there’s a load in the washer that needs to be dried. If this had been one of those nights, we’d have been sleeping, and without detectors to warn us, our bedroom would’ve filled with smoke before we woke up coughing. 

Once awake, it’s unlikely we would’ve travelled into the smoke to get down the hall, and if we had, the open stairwell would’ve been blazing, blocking our way to the front door. That would’ve meant breaking a bedroom window (the small sections that open are too small to crawl through), climbing out through broken glass onto a two-foot wide catwalk and then, since there are no stairs or ladder, jumping from the second floor onto the dirt below.
Nice view. No egress. 

Would I have thrown my cats off the balcony? Would I have seen our Bengal kitty again?

If my cell phone was in the bedroom and I remembered to grab it, I would’ve dialed 911. If not, we would’ve pounded on a neighbor’s door, asked to use the phone. Either way, we’d wait helplessly for the fire department to arrive (it’s eight minutes to the station) while our home burned.

But our home did not burn. Unusually, my husband was standing in the basement hallway when the fire started and put it out quickly.

It took weeks to figure out the cause of the leak he’d been investigating, so difficult to recreate—shower water travelling behind the faucet­—that we can only believe, as Kevin said the night of the fire, “It was God’s way of saving us.”

After we turned off the fans, shut the windows, and Swiffered the floor, we climbed into bed, and I huddled close to my husband, listening to his heartbeat in my ear. It was three days before Thanksgiving and thanksgiving swelled in my chest.  We had been rescued from the fire, spared homelessness and worse, saved by Kevin and by grace, given everything we needed and more.

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