Last Thursday night, KingofHearts spilled some Linseed oil in the basement while working and mopped it up with some old rags and threw them on top of the garbage can to dry.

Now, we both grew up in the Southwest and were inundated by Public Service Announcements about how if you put oily rags in a can and don't let them completely dry out, they can get hot and smolder and cause a fire. I, in particular, vividly remember the dramatization of the guy who wiped up motor oil in his garage, threw the rags in an oil can and burned down his house. Then the sad fire chief walks into the camera frame shaking his head with some ‘don’t let this happen to you’ such lecture. So we really should have been able to avoid what came next.

Apparently, they weren't spread out enough to dry, because some time in the night, they heated up and combusted on top of the garbage can. The garbage can, which was conveniently (for the fire at least) filled with wood scraps and other tasty flammables, thereby providing an excellent fuel source.

3:30 Friday morning, I was awakened to KingofHearts yelling "Get the baby, there's a fire in the house!" I guess he'd heard the downstairs smoke detector go off (I had actually just gotten to bed and somehow slept through it – I guess a couple of nights of insomnia can kill you after all) and discovered a large fire in the basement when he went to investigate. I later learned that this was after he stumbled around for a minute or two trying to find the watch with the alarm that he thought was going off and wondering why someone was burning toast. He finally woke up enough to take in the facts.

I grabbed Dormouse and a fire extinguisher and KingofHearts grabbed the phone and dialed 911 as we ran out of the smoke filled house. By the time we got outside, all the smoke detectors in the house were sounding, not just the one downstairs (nice - timing has a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance, you know) and there was much too much smoke to go back and use the piddly little kitchen extinguisher on the fire, although I did go back in and scope out the situation once. At least I had the sense to decide to let the professionals handle it and came back out when I could barely see down the stairwell enough to guess that in the last couple of minutes the fire had about doubled in size.

So we waited outside on the grass for what felt like hours, but I'm sure wasn't more than 5 minutes, for the 2 engines, 1 hook and ladder truck, and 5 fire chief SUVS to show up, kick in the basement door and extinguish the fire. All in all, we feel very blessed and grateful to be alive and unharmed. The firemen found the cat, tried to get her out of the house; she scratched the hell out of one of them and ran BACK DOWNSTAIRS, but we found her about three hours later, hiding under the bed in the least smoky part of the basement, scared but unscathed. There's quite a bit of smoke damage and we will probably need to repaint most of the house to get rid of the burned plastic smell that we've already become so familiar with (we already shampooed all the carpets, washed every piece of fabric we ever owned, and thanks to some very kind people from the Church repainted the living room within 48 hours), but the fire started right next to KingofHearts's "flammable liquids" cabinet so if he hadn't woke when he did, giving the fire even 10 more minutes to spread, that would probably have eventually caught fire and my guess is we'd have had some major structural damage to deal with.

The fire took approximately 20 seconds to extinguish with a fire hose, but I was floored by the amount of care they took in ensuring that it hadn’t spread anywhere else. They put ladders up and climbed all over the roof to make sure there was nothing smoldering in the attic (even though the fire was in the basement and it was obvious it hadn’t spread far) and they opened every closet and every single cabinet and drawer in the house, then opened every window in the house to let the smoke out. The firemen were amazingly swift, thorough, and efficient and I love them all.

Here are some random things that I remember from the 60-90 minutes that ensued:

  • The first officer to show up asked KingofHearts where the fire was (“In the basement”, we said) and then asked if the basement door was open. KingofHearts, in what I can only assume was a mixture of confusion and adrenaline, replied, "No, my keys are in the house... do you want me to run back in and get them?" The officer said nothing, blinked once, and went past him down the stairwell to kick the door in without ever breaking stride.
  • I now know the importance for the things and people in my life, as this is the order that I thought about stuff in: KingofHearts (must be ok for now because he’s yelling at me to get up), Dormouse, Cat, Violin. The violin came a bit later and after we knew they’d put the fire out – I snuck around the side of the house and peeked through a basement window into the room where I keep it. It appeared dry and uncharred. (Later, I thought about how hot it must have been in the room and opened the case to check whether the glue had melted or something like that… it hadn’t even gone out of tune. If that’s not an advertisement for a $500 Mustang Violin Case, I don’t know what is.) Throughout the whole time, I thought of and was concerned for no other possessions, not even photo albums or keepsakes.
  • Dormouse pretty much thought it was a big amusement park ride and was fascinated by all the lights, hoses and masses of people going in and out. She now can give an amazingly dramatic rendition of the experience, complete with impressionistic dance reenactment of "Daddy's blue trash can, melting to the ground".
  • One SUV pulled up and when they opened the back hatch, someone's tennis shoes fell on out on the ground. They remained there for the duration of the experience. This is probably the clearest memory I had of the night.
  • Another SUV pulled up directly onto the front lawn of the neighbor across the street. All I could think about was how badly the lawn would be damaged the next morning and whether they would know why.
  • After about 10 or 15 minutes of standing in the yard watching firemen go in and out of the house, KingofHearts quipped, "Hmmm I wonder where John is? (our retired fire fighter neighbor who lives across and street and knows every time match is struck in the neighborhood) I'm disappointed he's not here yet." John showed up by our side not about 3 minutes after these words came out of his mouth. He also spent about 3 hours later in the day helping us clean up.
  • At one point, I overheard one of the firemen ask another one "Where's Mike?" The first guy said, "Oh he's in the back of the van sleeping; he couldn't quite wake up." I’m guessing one more guy to add to the 25 or so who were in and out of that house probably wouldn’t have made a much of a difference and Mike probably knew that.
  • After the fire was extinguished, I heard the chief barking orders to the rest of the men, “OK – go in and open up the house…” and then as if an afterthought yelled, “BUT. DON’T. BREAK. ANYTHING!” It didn’t stop them from breaking a couple of things, (and frankly, I wasn’t going to complain) but I was glad to not have to replace any windows.
  • After all was said and done and KingofHearts and John went downstairs to survey the damage, I was walking through the kitchen and noticed that my digital camera, which I had placed on the counter the day before was missing and the battery charger was pulled out of the wall. I stared at the empty space in disbelief as I tried to convince myself that firemen did NOT just steal my camera after putting a fire out in my house. Why would they want my camera anyway? And they knew they had to put a battery in it for it to be useful? I was so confused. I had finally decided to just to chalk it up to experience – after all, they probably saved my house… if they wanted my damn camera, I wasn’t going to complain – when I thought to ask KingofHearts if he had it. He had taken it downstairs to take pictures in case we needed photos for an insurance claim. I. Am. A. Horrible. Person.

Here’s my most poignant memory of that night: After the fire was extinguished, but even before the fire department was gone, I said to John, “We’d like to do something nice for these guys… maybe bring them dinner or something. What do you recommend?” John, a 31 year veteran of the DC Fire Department, hemmed and hawed and said, “Well, if you brought them dinner, a lot of them might not get to eat it while it was hot if they get a call and have to go out… some of them might be off duty by then too…. Actually I don’t know… no one ever did anything like that for us.”

Me: “You mean in 31 years, no one ever came back to thank you for saving them or their family or their property?”

John: “Nope.”


KingofHearts and I finally settled on two large sheet cakes from Costco and a Thank You card, which we brought over around lunch time that same day. There were actually even a couple of guys still there who had been on duty at our house. They were incredibly nice and kind and we shook each of their hands.

Moral of the story:

First. Run, do not walk, to your nearest home improvement store and buy smoke detectors for every bedroom in your house. And then buy a few more for the other rooms. And then buy just one more for good measure. They probably saved our lives.

Second. Go by your local firehouse and bring cookies, lasagna, whatever…. and thank them for what they do everyday. These men are incredible.