That’s why I didn’t think much of it when I saw smoke in the air under the shades of our oversized floor lamps.
It was January 2020 and our two boys were sleeping soundly. Like most winter nights, my husband and I would go and build a fire, sit by our fireplace, and chat about our day.
When I took a look and saw the smoke, I didn’t panic. Instead, my reaction was just the opposite. I was bored, thinking, “What now ?!”
Even though I was not frantic, I had a feeling of discomfort in the pit of my stomach. I like to think my mother’s instinct kicked in. I went upstairs to see the boys, but I was afraid to wake them; as any parent knows, you never wake a sleeping baby. I didn’t notice anything abnormal other than a slightly strange smell as I stood at the top of the stairs. After a few moments, I went back down to the living room.
Thinking of that strange smell, I asked my husband if he wanted to go see our 6 month old son. He went to our 2 year old’s bedroom instead – a decision that ended up changing the course of our lives.
It was there that he found our oldest son’s room filled with smoke. He screamed for me and I soared up the stairs. I was confused and still didn’t think we were in danger. You might find it odd, but the smoke detectors didn’t go off, we didn’t smell anything burnt and we thought it was something wrong with the chimney that we could correct ourselves.
I took our son downstairs and gave him a bottle to calm him down. Then I called my brother-in-law, who happens to be a home inspector. He told me we could have a fire behind our walls and call the fire department. I thought he was extreme, but I took his advice and called 911.
When the dispatcher responded, I said I thought it was a minor issue and asked if the firefighters could turn off their sirens so as not to wake our neighbors. The man in line laughed and told me he couldn’t do this, but the fire department and police would be at our house in a few minutes.
I took our son to the basement and shot cartoons. I tried to explain why a group of firefighters entered our living room, telling him how fun it was to have firefighters in our house. It wasn’t long before my husband joined us, carrying our little boy in his arms. I always thought about how I was going to get the kids back to bed after the firefighters were gone.
I had no idea our lives were going to change in a matter of moments.
“I found it!” one of the firefighters bellowed. They had walked all over our house with heat detectors. Next thing I knew, several firefighters came into the basement and told me we had to evacuate the house – now. I kept saying, “But I don’t have shoes, my kids are in pajamas, I don’t know where my animals are.”
Within seconds, I was out in the dark, cold night, holding my two children.
About 10 minutes later, my husband joined us at our neighbor’s house with our dog. One cat was in our car and we couldn’t find the other that night. My husband, who is usually quite stoic, began to cry hysterically, repeating, “Here we go, our house is gone!”
“What’s gone?” I said.
Looking back, I was in complete denial.
Meanwhile, the firefighters were putting out a fire, which had made its way to our newly restored fireplace and behind the walls of our children’s room. Firefighters were smashing walls with axes and hammers and pouring thousands of gallons of water into the house in an attempt to save it.
This is where it hit me. I have become inconsolable.
My in-laws came and took the kids home and I waited a few more hours at our neighbor’s house until the fire went out. We were allowed to go into the house to collect some personal items.
There was several inches of standing water in our living room, the walls were broken, the kitchen ceiling had collapsed, the furniture was knocked over and water was leaking from our air conditioning vents.
To tell you the truth, I was numb at the time. The fire chief looked at us and said, “If you hadn’t been to your son’s room it would have been a very different weekend.
That’s when it really sank. A few more minutes and my children would have succumbed to the smoke inhalation. Who knows what would have happened to my husband and me if we had fallen asleep. It is a dark reality that I have buried deeply.
While some parts of my house look good, I didn’t realize that in a matter of hours, smoke would penetrate and ruin almost anything the flames didn’t have.
I packed two suitcases with photos, passports, birth certificates, jewelry, diapers and clothes for my children.
I walked out the door, not knowing when – if ever – we might come back.
The days to come were blurry. My family, friends, colleagues and complete strangers came together to support us in a way I will never forget. It was an aspect of humanity that I knew existed but had never known.
I continued to replay what could have happened in my head. I clung to my boys. They were all I needed. As long as I had them, the house was where they were.
In less than two weeks, the house we had meticulously renovated was completely demolished to the posts. But thanks to the incredible firefighters, the structure of our house had been saved, along with all of our lives. What about our cat? We found him terrified, but alive the day after the fire, when we went to inspect the damage alongside a demolition crew and our insurance expert.
In fact, our restored fireplace had cracks between the bricks, which allowed the flames to burn the wall behind it. We had no idea this was happening the few times we had used the fireplace until that fateful January night when that charred wall finally caught fire.
We returned to our house last October. It is again full of things. But we are forever changed.
Looking back, I would have been more vigilant in the face of the unusual smoke. I would have made photocopies of important documents and emailed them. I would have had blankets, water, a pair of shoes and a change of clothes in my car. I would have learned more about our smoke detectors and how they work.
I encourage you all to practice a two minute fire escape, test your smoke detectors monthly, and change the batteries at least once a year. I wish I could tell you how to avoid a chimney fire like mine, but the only prevention advice I can give is to take extra precautions. Knowing what I know now, I would have had a home inspector check the fireplace after it was restored.
Looking back, I would have handled so many things differently. But since I can’t turn back time, I can help you prepare for the future. Take two minutes to make a plan and perform an exercise. It could save a life.