I was rudely reminded of that last week. Phyliss and I had returned to our house from our maple sugar shack, and we entered the house to a strange burning plastic smell. We sniffed and sniffed throughout the house, trying to identify where the smell was coming from. We have a wood stove, so our first thought was that it was the culprit. After a little more sniffing it was apparent that it wasn’t. But just to be sure I let the fire burn out.
Our second thought was because we have enough Christmas lights in the house to decorate the tree at Rockefeller Plaza, the problem lay there. But it didn’t.
More sniffing, and more inability to find the source of the smell.
At 11:30 Phyliss and I finally went to bed and within seconds she was asleep. Meanwhile, I lay there thinking. This is not right, something’s wrong. I got up and sniffed some more. The burnt smell was no longer like plastic yet was even more pervasive. I took the ashes from the wood stove outside to eliminate that as a source of the smell. Then, as I came back in, I looked into the corner of the living room and saw a small cloud of smoke. My first thought was it was from removing the ashes. But as I went over to check, I found the culprit – a small stream of smoke coming out of the electrical outlet.
I got my tools, removed the outlet from the wall and carefully cut the wires. The outlet fell to the floor, but a small amount of smoke was still coming out of the wall. I hit it with a few shots from the fire extinguisher and then remembered there was an exterior outlet opposite this one. I went outside, and sure enough, smoke was coming out of that outlet too. The outlet had a heavy-duty extension cord plugged into a heater we use to keep our wood-fired hot tub from freezing solid. I unplugged the cord, but the outlet was too hot to mess with.
I ran back into the house to the smoke alarm shrieking, “Evacuate, Evacuate!”
Phyliss was now wide awake, also shrieking. “The house is going to burn down! The house is going to burn down!”
It was time to call the pros. I called 911 but the call didn’t go through. I called it again, and again it didn’t go through. Then I said to hell with it and called the fire department directly. A gentleman took down my information and said help would arrive in minutes. And indeed, it did.
The first to arrive was Doug Peck, quickly followed by Mike Knapp, and then Andrea Boon, Nate Jones, Cory Culver, Ben Tucker, and Dominic Fontana all of them decked out in their firefighting gear. Quickly and professionally, Doug used an infrared camera to find the hot spot and told me that he’d have to cut out a section of the wall. When the others ran a fire hose down our hall, I had visions of a high pressure gusher flooding our house. Mike checked outside and before I knew it Doug cut out an exterior section of the wall. Instead of flooding the living room they expertly ran the hose through the door next to the wall where the smoke was coming and provided just enough water to extinguish the now baseball-size flame.
The fire was eliminated in seconds. They proved the flame was extinguished, both by careful examination of the wall and use of their infrared camera. Then they meticulously gathered their hoses and other equipment, and even swept up the mess made by cutting out the hole. After that I found a scrap piece of plywood that I screwed over the inside wall and found a tarp to staple over the exterior wall.
Before we knew it, the firefighters were out the driveway, with our eternal gratitude. Too wired to sleep, Phyliss decided to do the dishes while I tried to read a book. Finally, around 2:30 AM, we headed to bed to a restless night’s sleep, thinking of the What Ifs we had avoided – especially What if we’d been away?
As a former Wilderness First Responder and teacher of leadership and decision making, I know professional emergency response when I see it.
Thursday night I saw it.