Never Leave A Lit Candle Unattended: An Adventure Story From The Great Winter Storm Of 2012


An Adventure Story from the Great Winter Storm of 2012

jessica jensenWe all know the admonition – never leave a lit candle unattended.  Well I did and here’s what happened.  But first the back story.  I come from back East where severe winter snow storms are the norm.  In rural upper New England where I lived, power outages are a way of life in the winter.  You learn to be prepared and you don’t let deep snow or no power stop you from living.  You have an emergency plan and plenty of wood, matches, water, candles, oil lamps, oil, food and blankets.  If the truth be told, rural New Englanders take a perverse pride in “making it” through a rough winter.  The rougher the better for some of them (like my sister Nancy).  After 40 years of winter snow, I figure I’d built enough character and resourcefulness to last a lifetime.  I was glad to leave snow country behind.

I love Washington rain and my 1950 log home in the Black Lake area of Thurston County.  I also love candles.  But since I live in an all-wood home, I am extremely careful.  Oil lamps are a lot safer and we actually have enough of them to light a small city.  So when the lights went out, I lit the lamps.  And I pulled out the stash of gallon glass jugs of emergency water (no power means no well pump) and lined them up neatly in my kitchen.  And I lit a sturdy pillar candle on a sturdy glass dish and placed it on the back of the toilet so there would be light in my bathroom.  And I placed a gallon water bottle in each bathroom for flushing.

Then I made dinner on our gas stove.  We had heat (gas fireplace) and water and food and my partner Mark was on his way home after three days up north covering snow stories for CBS news (he’s an audio engineer).  Life was good and this was lots more comfortable than camping.  I was looking forward to a quiet night of catching up.

Mark grew up in snow country too so he had no problem getting home, but the pile of snow in front of the garage refused to be defeated by merely driving over it.  So he grabbed a shovel.  I decided to lend him a hand.  As I was putting on my boots, the thought came to me that I might want to use the bathroom first.  Nah, I thought, I’ll only be a few minutes; I can wait.  Once outside, I was out of hearing range of the inner house as I worked on moving the snow from in front of his side of the garage.  A loud beeping noise drew Mark toward the door leading from the garage into the house and he decided to investigate.  I was still shoveling and didn’t realize he had gone.  When I heard him scream far off in an odd, frantic kind of way, “Jess, get in here – NOW” I knew something was wrong.  As I ran through the garage I heard the smoke alarms – 2 of them – screaming.  At first I thought that an oil lamp must have smoked up (they do that sometimes).  When I saw the thick black smoke in the hallway, I realized my house was on fire.  I ran down the hall.  Mark was screaming “I can’t find it.”

I ran first to the living room where the lanterns were and was bewildered that I couldn’t find it either.  Then I remembered my bathroom.  I ran there calling to Mark as I went.  But he was running through the kitchen still looking for the source of the fire and couldn’t hear me.  (Did I mention our log walls are really thick?)  I ran into my bathroom.  My cloth shower curtain was on fire and so was the floor between the tub and toilet and the back wall behind the toilet.  The fumes were toxic.  The flames had reached my Formica tub surround.  I was stunned by what I saw – watching my home, my place of safety burn – it was surreal.  It hit me that every second counted.  We had to get the fire out NOW, or it would be too late.  I yelled “it’s in my bathroom” and ran out screaming “we need water.”  I passed Mark as he was running in.  I started heading for the back door thinking I’d drag in a garden hose, but remembered we had no power to pump the water.  I shouted something about using blankets to smother the flames and then I remembered all the glass water jugs I’d pulled out.  I grabbed one from the kitchen and found Mark in my bathroom dousing the flames using the water bottle I’d left by the toilet for flushing.  This increased the fumes and black smoke and he was choking and left to get air.  But he’d stopped the fire from spreading upward.  I held my breath and got most of the rest of it out, but the back wall was still a bright, glowing red.

I could hear Mark choking and I was too.  I remembered you are supposed to put a wet towel over your head before going into a smoke-filled room.  I screamed this to him as I doused a hand towel with water and went back in to finish off the fire.  Mark joined me and we each threw more water at it.  And then it was out.  The stench was incredible and forced us out of the room.

We wandered around in a bit of a daze, opening windows and doors to let the smoke out.  How did the fire start?  When the smoke dissipated a little, we went back in to see if we could figure out what happened.  Half of the glass dish that held the pillar candle was still on top of the toilet.  The other half and the remains of the candle were nowhere in sight.  The candle must have burned down fast through the middle.  When the hot wick met glass, the glass dish broke in two, we surmised.  The breaking glass must have catapulted the lit candle into the wicker trash basket that had been sitting between the toilet and tub.  The candle ignited some tissues in the wicker trash basket, and then the flames ignited my cotton shower curtain which in turn ignited the cotton rug I used as a bath mat that was draped over the tub.  Really?  Yes, really.

My electric toothbrush lay in an elongated blue lump over the side of my tub.  I wondered if the battery had exploded.  The flames hadn’t reached the log walls or wood ceiling but dark soot blackened the wood above the tub enclosure.  As we wandered through the house, we realized the soot had traveled everywhere.  It covered our clothing, furniture, bedding, books, rugs, floors, surfaces, the logs, everything in plain sight in every room.  Mark reset the fire alarms while I walked up to the Black Lake Fire Department to see if someone could come down to verify the fire was out.  Two young firefighters Colby and Will followed me back on quads and tested the wall temperatures to verity the fire was indeed out and would not be coming back.

After they left, we coughed up and sneezed out black phlegm for awhile.  We hugged and processed and took stock and counted our blessings.  If we hadn’t had enough water stashed, we wouldn’t have been able to put the fire out.  If we hadn’t had smoke detectors (with good batteries), we would have found the fire when it was too late.  If Mark didn’t have great hearing and an inquisitive nature, he might not have heard or heeded the smoke alarm.  If we had been even one minute later, the fire would have reached the wood ceiling.  With no ability to spray water, we don’t know if we would have been able to stop or control the fire once it reached the wooden ceiling.  Even if we’d called the fire department, there was a downed power line at the end of our dead-end street and there would have been a delay getting a fire truck to us.  The smoke detectors, bottled water, our quick thinking, our teamwork and (we think) some inspiration and guidance from beyond saved our home.  We are exceedingly lucky and we know it.

I love fire and continue to love it. But I learned something about fire that I didn’t really understand.  It’s fast.  Really fast.  I didn’t comprehend how fast until this event.  Obviously, I will NEVER leave a lit candle unattended again.  I am also going to purchase a fire extinguisher (environmentally-friendly, of course) and keep it charged.  (A fire extinguisher can lose potency if not recharged periodically.)  And I will never again complain when my new best friend (my smoke detector) “chirps” because its battery needs changing – even if it’s 3 in the morning.

About The Author

Jessica Jensen is the owner of Jessica Jensen Law in Olympia.  Her general practice firm handles a wide variety of civil matters, including business, real estate, family law, consumer protection, wills and trusts.

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