When I first ran through the doorway, it seemed like I was walking into a thick fog bank. The charcoal-colored smoke was so opaque I could not see my hand in front of my face. I squeezed my eyes nearly shut, held my breath and followed the sounds of running feet ahead of me.
Against all judgment, my partner had rushed into the burning house in hopes of finding the last occupant. With the fire department still on the way, I was the third cop to follow him inside where a teenager was, unbelievably, hiding out amidst the flames. Though I was inside the shortest amount of time, it still required a trip to the emergency room and a tank of oxygen to clear the grey sludge out of my lungs.
With zero visibility and toxic air so hot it can sear lungs in a single breath, structural fires like the recent one on Fox Island which claimed the lives of a respected physician and his eight-year old daughter, are far removed from the ones depicted in Hollywood action films.
Forget the slight haze and dramatic flames shooting up from crevices as nimble actors scurry along, nimbly avoiding a collapsing floor. Being in a real fire is like walking through a dark cloud in the hottest, smelliest part of hell.
And for that, firefighters are welcome to it.
While officials complete their investigation (TNT 12/10), the tragic Fox Island incident should be viewed as a reminder of the added fire risk that comes with the holiday season. Whether it is a spark from a wood fireplace or a faulty wire on a dry Christmas tree, winter and the holidays are often marred by the destructive force of fire in a confined space.
There are many ways to minimize the risk. First and foremost, of course, is the proper installation of smoke alarms (hard-wired with a battery back-up are best, and don’t forget to replace the battery). Add to that a carbon monoxide detector, and and home will be well defended against some of the likeliest and most dangerous household threats.
For Christmas decorations, use as few extension cords as possible and keep each in plain view. Also, remember that a well-watered Christmas tree is more fire resistant.*
Above all, have a plan in place. Talk to family members about what could happen, and determine the best route for escape. That way you won’t wind up relying on a first responder – especially one like me who couldn’t find the nose on his face in a fire – to save you or someone you love.
Be safe out there this holiday season. Peace.
* For a complete fire safety checklist, check out the Tacoma Fire Department website.