Author(s): Karen Facey. Published on December 29, 2014.

AS THE FIRE MARSHAL IN NEW MILFORD, Connecticut, I live, eat, and breathe public safety, specifically fire safety. Anyone who knows me will tell you about the passion and energy I bring to the importance of fire codes, including those developed by NFPA, and to public education related to those codes. I consider myself an expert on fire education, and at any presentation you will hear me say, “fire is indiscriminate,” meaning it doesn’t care where you live, how much money you make, how much you care about safety, or what you do for a living—even if you’re a fire marshal.

In late October, I spent a long Saturday chauffeuring my two non-driving teens to their various events. More than 320 miles later, at 9:30 p.m., I was finally home after dropping my kids at their dad’s. I loaded the dishwasher, let my dog and the puppy I was fostering out for the night, and tidied things up. I’d managed to eke out a moment earlier in the day to buy some packaged candle wax, which I planned to melt with beeswax as part of a candle-making project. I rarely burn candles, and I didn’t intend to burn these; they were to hang as decoration from a beam in my family room. The idea was to pre-melt the waxes that night so they blended, and then I could heat everything again in the water bath on Sunday, when I had time to dip the candles. I combined the waxes in a pot, and placed the pot in a pan of water on the gas stovetop. I turned the burner on, and the waxes melted as I straightened up. I finished loading the dishwasher and turned the stove’s burner knob to “off”. Exhausted, I headed to bed.

I woke suddenly and in confusion. I was vaguely aware of the chiming of smoke alarms, but keenly aware of a cacophony of barking from the dogs—Ella, the foster pup, a big, six-month-old Black Lab–Great Pyrenees mix with a tremendous bark, and my dog, Teddy, a year-old Leonberger–Great Pyrenees mix—who were tucked away for the night in their crates. As I was getting out of bed, the smoke detectors in my bedroom began to sound. I grabbed my bathrobe and took a quick look at the alarm clock, which read 12:24 a.m.

I threw open the bedroom door and could not believe the scene in front of me: a column of flame shooting from the stovetop, 50 feet from me, licking the kitchen ceiling, along with the unmistakable jet-engine roar of a raging fire. I ran to the kitchen in my bare feet, and one look at the stove was enough for me to realize what I’d done: I’d inadvertently turned the burner knob to “high,” the water bath had boiled away, and the heat had ignited the pot of wax, which now resembled a giant blowtorch. My first thought was that I had to get it out, and fast. I didn’t have the 5 to 10 minutes it would take for our excellent volunteer firefighters to reach me. I had to act.

I grabbed an empty Mason jar and filled it with water from the sink. From my professional training I knew that water wasn’t the best option for a wax fire, but my kitchen was not equipped with a fire extinguisher—an oversight on my part when I moved into the house. I threw the water at the pan, which made the fire rear up angrily, splattering burning and boiling wax all over the floor, which I managed to dodge in my bare feet. In the seconds it took to refill the jar, I simultaneously weighed my desire to fight the fire against the option of leashing the dogs, grabbing the cats, and getting out of the house. I knew that option likely meant the loss of my home and my possessions. Even as I considered my options, I was making my choice, consciously or otherwise: I stayed in the kitchen, throwing more water on the fire and refilling the jar, my bathrobe flapping around me—not exactly a turnout ensemble approved by NFPA or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

I was finally able to extinguish the stovetop fire, only to notice flames rolling around in the stove’s vent hood. I hadn’t realized it was burning, though pieces of the screen had melted and dropped onto the stovetop. I threw another jar of water up into the hood, and succeeded in both putting out the fire and shorting out the fan’s electrical system. (A trip to the electrical panel in the basement a few minutes later solved that issue.) Then it was over, and the kitchen was quiet again. I stood there clutching the Mason jar, trying to catch my breath. The dogs went back to sleep, and the cats appeared and curled up on the couch. Everything was back to normal, more or less, and we were all safe. I was just grateful my kids hadn’t been in the house.

At first I didn’t think the kitchen looked that bad. I knew the vent hood was totaled, but I also knew it was the recirculating type and wasn’t ducted to the outside, meaning there was no fire inside the wall. At about 1:30 a.m. I called the fire marshal for Bethlehem, the town where I live, and told him what had happened; the state requires a fire marshal investigation after a fire like this, and he said he’d be there around 7 a.m. I checked the surface of the wall behind the stove hourly to make sure it was cooling. I opened windows and did what I could to vent the house of waxy smoke. I ordered a replacement vent hood.

With daylight, the results were more apparent, and worse than I’d thought a few hours earlier. There was extensive smoke buildup and soot on the upper parts of the first-floor walls. The three cabinets surrounding the range had sustained burns, and the flames had bubbled the paint. The local fire marshal arrived and conducted his investigation, peering at the stovetop as I tried to keep my embarrassment in check. The entire house stunk like a burnt candle.

Karen Facey Kitchen_3_opt1

Karen Facey Kitchen_3_opt2

Karen Facey Kitchen_36_opt

Photographs taken by Facey soon after the fire show, from top, damage to the hood, smoke and fire damage to the ceiling, and damage to the hood and surrounding cabinets, which had to be replaced.

Later that morning, I taught a hazardous materials refresher to the local volunteer firefighters. As mortified as I was by what had happened the night before, and as tempted as I was to bury the story under a rock and keep it quiet, I nevertheless shared it with the firefighters. I didn’t have much choice; my co-instructor that morning was the same local fire marshal who’d been in my kitchen an hour earlier. He urged, or possibly shamed, me into telling the story, which I doubt I’ll ever live down among my fellow firefighters.

There were a few laughs at my expense, and I laughed with them, thankful my kitchen fire hadn’t made the headlines in that morning’s newspaper. I secretly hoped they wouldn’t judge me, and I continue to hope that my friends and professional colleagues around the country will also not judge. I’m not sure where this notion of the infallible firefighter developed, despite the fact that I hold myself to that same standard of perfection. We can be heroes, but we are always, and above all, human. I had certainly felt human, and fallible, when I realized my kitchen was on fire; in that moment, I was less a highly trained fire professional than a homeowner faced with a critical split-second decision.

The house I nearly lost is an 1830 Greek Revival that I’ve spent the past 18 months—and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears—renovating. This house is not solely mine in spirit; it is integral to the fabric of this rural New England town that I am proud to call home. With its extensive history, the house belongs as much to the community as it does to me. I am merely its steward, nurturing it through its next 183 years. I can only imagine the stories we would hear if its walls could talk, and now they can add another tale, of the night they nearly burned to the ground. I could never forgive myself if my mistake had caused the loss of this house, built by the townspeople all those years ago—I’m sure that’s part of what motivated me to keep refilling that Mason jar. I only lost a handful of cabinets and a vent hood, all of which were easily replaced. The range top was fine, and needed only a thorough cleaning; even the plastic knobs on its front survived. The silver lining is that my home is now spotless thanks to smoke remediation, which entailed three days of running special fans, along with a chemical cleaning of the walls by a restoration company to get the odor out.

According to NFPA statistics, 43 percent of home fires are caused by cooking, and of those, 57 percent involve ranges. These figures underscore the importance of smoke detectors as well as home fire sprinklers, of which I am a huge proponent. My antique home is not a viable candidate for sprinklers, but if I ever build a new home, it will be sprinklered. And yes, my kitchen is now equipped with a fire extinguisher.

The bottom line is that working smoke alarms saved my home, and there is a strong likelihood that they saved my life and the lives of my pets. The responsible side of me, centered on a meaningful life of keeping others safe, says I should face the embarrassment and use the story as an educational opportunity. My experience can serve as a catalyst for making our homes as safe as possible, since the technology provided by working smoke alarms is affordable, easy to use, and widely available.

Fire and public safety professionals should use my story to help urge their audiences to change their smoke alarm batteries immediately and test them monthly. If the alarms are older than 10 years, replace them now; the sealed units with 10-year lithium batteries are ideal, but any kind of working detector is better than nothing. Remind them to check their carbon monoxide detectors, and to change the batteries in those as well. Urge homeowners to have at least one smoke alarm on each level of their homes, including the basement, and in each bedroom. Remind them that alarms should be mounted on the ceiling, or on the wall within 8 inches of the ceiling. Remind them that they do not need smoke alarms in the kitchen, where they can go off whenever someone burns the toast. If this message can encourage or cause one person to change their behavior, then it is worth every iota of embarrassment and judgment coming my way.

A few days after the fire, I stopped in to a shop in New Milford and bought five sets of hand-dipped candles for $25, which I used to adorn the beam in the family room. Factoring in the insurance deductible, the real cost of the candles was more in the neighborhood of $1,025. Call it the added cost of a hectic day, a momentary distraction, and haste. It happened to me, and it could happen to you. As I like to say, fire is indiscriminate.