“It is your concern when your neighbour’s wall is on fire.”
“Your own safety is at stake when your neighbour’s house is in flames.” ~ Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace)
I’ve never had any cause to consider Horace’s quotes until two nights ago… I’ve had plenty of days where I’ve followed his wonderful advice: Carpe diem, quam minimum credula posero. (Pluck the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow).
Not your average Thursday evening…
I had put the children to bed a few hours earlier, and for the first time all week had not crashed out in heap myself. Instead, I decided I needed to watch some trashy TV to clear my mind and relax before tackling the remains of the home cooked meal I had prepared earlier.
As I sat on the sofa I became aware of a burning smell. I sniffed and queried what I had smelt. Could I smell burning? I sat for a bit longer, but the smell didn’t go away. I got up and wandered into the kitchen; maybe I had left the hob or the oven on?
No – I could not see or smell any sign of any post dinner forgetfulness. I went back into the lounge and the smell hit me again. After a while I went into my office, but there was no sign of any problems or any burning smell in there.
I sat down again, and rather disconcertingly the smell of burning was getting worse. Little did I know that the room directly on the other side of the wall was on fire.
I soon got an inkling of the problem when I saw blue flashing lights rapidly approach and come to a halt outside my window through a gap in the curtains. My adrenaline instantly kicked in and I threw on my coat and ventured into the street.
Fire crews were busy pulling out hoses and donning oxygen tanks and masks from two fire engines, and the reality of the situation hit home. The house joining ours was on fire.
The last thing I expected to see was flames flickering in the window of my neigbour’s house!
The owners had not lived there for a few years, it had been rented out on and off. The incident commander asked me if I knew who lived there. They broke in and began dealing with the situation. Orange lit up the window and smoke was streaming from the chimney and the front door.
Luckily no-one was in the house. Then my thoughts turned to my three children sleeping peacefully a few feet away. A fireman told me that the fire had not had a chance to reach the loft, so it seemed our house was not in danger of burning down. Even so, I still felt an overwhelming urge to get everyone out and the fireman agreed.
I dashed back in and ran upstairs. I had forgotten that I had opened my bedroom window that morning to air the room, and consequently the smoke that had been billowing up from next door was funnelling straight into our house. I couldn’t believe how thick it had become in such a short space of time, even after a few minutes in my room (which was next to and above the room on fire).
Unfortunately our smoke alarms didn’t go off, despite all the false alarms from burnt toast in previous years.
As I entered William’s room I could see the smoke had seeped in under the closed door, and my son leapt out of bed the instant I woke him. My daughters were a little more groggy and confused, but I assured them they should get dressed and get out of the house as quickly and calmly as possible.
At this point I was feeling anything but calm.
Every minute that passed I could sense the smoke becoming thicker and more acrid.
I remembered our eight month old kittens. I tried to get the bigger cat basket that was stored under my bed out. It wouldn’t budge. No matter how I twisted and turned it I couldn’t move it from its wedged position. My throat was literally burning by this point, I couldn’t stop coughing and my eyes were stinging. My daughter came in and dragged me away, telling me to leave it.
It’s hard to comprehend how grim smoke inhalation is, even at a relatively low level. I shudder to think how bad it would be inside a burning building. I can fully appreciate why firemen wear breathing apparatus.
My step father gave me a valuable piece of advice afterwards, should we ever have to face such an unpleasant scenario in the future: to put a damp cloth over your face to help you breath in a smoky room.
I shiver to think that I could have been asleep in a room that was virtually unbreathable in…
Once downstairs where the smoke wasn’t so bad I was relieved to find the cats were both pacing in the lounge. I found a small carrier from a recent visit to the vets. I popped them both unceremoniously into far too small a space, but I think they knew something was wrong and they didn’t scratch or bite me. I got the kids and cats out into the driveway and cold, fresh air, and settled the cat carrier onto the back seat of the car. The children were shocked and simultaneously excited to see the fire engines and a hive of activity outside our house.
I considered going back in to fetch my violin and take it with us to a local hotel, I knew I would have to spend the night in the car with the cats. Luckily it never came to that.
We waited for an hour and a half until the firemen assured us the fire was out next door and it was safe to go back inside. They checked our house and kindly placed two brand new, fully sealed 10 year fire alarms in our hallway and landing and tested them in front of me.
I got the kids back into bed and opened all the windows to try and air the house. There was no longer any smoke entering our house from our neighbour’s house, however the overpowering stench in my own room prevented me from sleeping in my bed. I set up a makeshift bed on my sofa, but my adrenaline was still coursing and I couldn’t sleep.
I think in the back of my mind I was worried the fire might flare up again; a totally irrational fear considering how professional and thorough the firemen had been.
I had a cup of tea and eventually dozed off, fully clothed at 4 am. When I woke at 7 am I had a pounding headache and a sore throat, but also an overriding and immense gratitude to the passerby who had noticed the fire from the street and called the High Wycombe Fire Brigade, and for their prompt arrival and hard work in making sure the fire did not spread.
I thanked them profusely!
There is no doubt in my mind that had it been left for another hour or two to burn unhindered the loft would have gone up and at that point so would our house…
Before they departed, when I had queried if the commander knew what had started the fire, he seemed to think an open fire had been left burning in the grate without a fire guard. He told me that the rest of the house was completely blackened through smoke.
A careless moment can have serious consequences…
I feel like angelic forces were protecting us that night, and the experience made me re-evaluate the most important things in my life. The awful smell of smoke in our house has diminished and will continue to fade as the days go by. I am so happy and thankful that we still have a roof over our heads and we are still alive.
I can’t imagine the horror of the residents affected by the Grenfell Tower disaster.
I will try not to let the smaller daily concerns fill me with fear, for when you sense your life may be in danger is the only time to utilise the fear response (fight or flight) and let it do its original job of mortal protection.
Having seen the distressing reports about the California wildfires my heart goes out those affected.
No matter how tough life has been recently, it is infinitely valuable and to be savoured.
“Fire, water and government know nothing of mercy.” ~ Albanian Proverb