Wind and Fire

Last night, I woke several times to the sound of gusting wind. At one point, I went outside to check the baby chicks, worried that the wind might blow their protective tarp off, exposing them to the cold. The pen was solid, chicks were warm, and tarp was secure. In the morning, another check found the babes still safe and snug. Some corrugated metal covering some firewood in the yard had gone flying, but even the greenhouse was standing calm, though 40mph gusts were tearing across the landscape. You could hear the occasional limb cracking, but the power was still on, and no roads to the house had been blocked by falling trees.

After an early morning coffee in town with some gregarious neighbors, I retuned to the farm to begin the day. The rain had stopped for a few hours, and I had time to work outside before the next front rolled through. Loppers and saw in hand, I checked the chicks once more, making sure their water was full and the tarp was still on snug. Then I headed about 50 feet away to the pear trees, where piles of branches from my pruning needed to be broken down a little more and moved away from the orchard. I had put on an audiobook and donned headphones to enjoy a good story while I cut up wood.

At one point I heard a cracking sound and thought another large branch was falling. I took off my headphones and looked around. There was no visible tree in distress, but suddenly, a burst of grey smoke loomed up from behind the house, and I suddenly realized the crackling sound was FIRE! I rushed to the back porch, which was engulfed in flames. I knew at once that the heat lamp had fallen into the chicken bedding, and that my little chicks were gone, but the flames were only just warming up, and there was still a lot of  unburned material, including my house, still in the path of the fast licking flames.

When instincts kick in, everything starts slowing down, or speeding up; it’s hard to think logically in the moment, and as I sit here now typing, the exact actions are still blurred, but I remember going into the house to check if the fire had breeched the wall of my home. It had not, and I knew seconds counted. I grabbed my phone and called 911. I was in the kitchen, turning on the faucet when I realized I didn’t have a way to carry that water to the back porch. Again, instincts kicked in, and I ran through the front door and over to my rain barrels, where a bucket sat ready. As I filled my 5 gallon salvation, in the same moment, the 911 operator picked up and asked what my emergency was. “Sir, my house is on fire, and I’ve got to get this water onto the flames.” I was running with the bucket, I think it was at least 5 trips back and forth in moments, throwing the water onto the porch, onto the house, onto anything that was burning.

I heard myself shouting numbers, street address, but then I had to stress the cross streets because sometimes the GPS is wrong, and I knew seconds counted in this emergency. The operator was getting on my nerves, telling me to get away from the fire, that I needed to repeat the address. Again water heaved onto flames, I had no more time for the dispatcher, the flames were climbing the wall, high winds coaxed the fire, it was moments before the roof would catch, and my house would be done for. I threw the phone down and called to my frantic housemate, who grabbed another bucket and followed me. I knew the phone could be traced, and my location found through GPS. I could hear the sirens and knew help was on the way, but the fire was still not out.

There were two points of clarity that I have to introject here:

1. I had unplugged the heat lamp at the first moment of reaching the scene, preventing possible electrical shock as water entered the mix.

2. I knew I needed to get any remaining fuel away from the house, preventing the fire from accelerating.

I found a rake and pulled what was left of the wood shaving bedding away from the wall of my house. The flames were relenting as I grabbed a charred pallet and threw it clear of the porch. My housemate was still throwing buckets with water as I clawed at the last of the smoldering debris, clearing the wall of what I could. It was out, as far as I could see, the fire was subdued. Then I saw smoke in the wall and feared the fire had gone under the roof.By now, I had gone to retrieve my phone, and it was ringing. The 911 dispatcher was on the other end breathless with concern. He ordered me to go away from the building, to gather the other residence and wait for the fire department by the road. I moved my truck first, making sure the fire officers had a clear path to my house.

The other residence were standing with me when the red trucks rolled in. They headed straight to the porch with a huge hose, and I braced, thinking about how vulnerable the trailer was to water, and fearing the worst. Another officer hung back, made sure we were all ok, and waited for orders. It was up to them now, these trained professionals, I had done all I could.

An officer came to get me, asking if I could come to the scene to give my story. I walked with him to the porch and watched as the team gingerly peeled back the exterior wall with axes. Yes, gingerly is the word, because they worked with careful precision. I saw a heat scanner being waved along the upper wall, and an officer from inside called out that no smoke or fire damage had come inside the house. It was the first good news I had to go on. Another fireman told me this was not an uncommon situation, that I was not stupid, that the accident was just that, an unfortunate mishap due to high winds. The whole team praised me for fighting the flames. They said if the house had caught, the winds could have taken the fire into the trees, and started a huge burning forest nightmare.

I asked if I had really done the right thing, and they all nodded yes. Most of the bedding had been in a bag next to the little coop. I’d kicked it back from the fire and the melting plastic gave, spilling the shavings everywhere. At the time I thought that had been a really bad move, that the spilled shavings would add to the flames, but somehow, they were left unburned. The raking had saved the wall, and water had soaked the bedding. It was all the best of a worst case scenario. My actions has saved the house, and the whole accident was minor, considering what could have been.

I am siting here now in the living room, watching the wood stove and giving thanks to fire for its mercy. Below are some photos of the aftermath. As you’ll see, the interior of the house is safe. Electrical wiring to the hot water tank was compromised, but the tank its self, and the other appliances (washer and dryer) are safe.

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This is a picture of the inside, where, thanks to some fast action, only boiled paint and one axe mark what could have been so much worse.

Over all, this has been an incredible experience, resulting in a lot of blessings and close calls with a happy ending. The house is safe, I’m safe, Indo is safe, and the electrician will be here in the morning first thing to replace the melted wiring. Many thanks to my housemate Kat, who grabbed a bucket, and the Duvall Fire Department, for making double sure that fire was out. Another very special thanks to Mr. Steven Crown of the King County Fire Investigator Team. He was on the scene and talking me through the accident with incredible sensitivity, teaching me what to do after you have a fire at home. I am so thankful for all the support from my community. These are my tax dollars at work!

I cannot overlook the loss of 6 small lives in this accident. From the ashes I take away many lessons, including the future design of safe chicken brood houses which will use heated pet rocks, rather than open heat lamps, to keep the chicks warm. Again, I am so thankful that this accident was so minimal, considering the wind, fuel, and power of fire. I am humbled, and grateful for all my lessons in this experience.

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