The Survivors is a five-part podcast series produced by NFPA underscoring the aftermath of a family who lost two children in a home fire

Winner: 2018 EXCEL Gold Award, Association Media & Publishing, Podcast (Educational)

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Feike joins the fire service and places himself into one of America’s deadliest places for fire: homes. Fire service and safety advocates discuss today’s home fire problem and why the fire dynamic of new homes is a cause for concern. 

By Fred Durso, Jr.

To understand the van Dijk’s and their way of life is to understand their town. During a stroll down Lander’s Main Street, I get a taste of it. More than 100 of the town’s approximate 500 businesses are on this stretch, which bustles with variety. A shoe store and bike shop show off their wares in picture windows. There’s outfitters for climbing and backpacking, a gun store, and a movie theater playing the latest Planet of the Apes sequel. There’s culture too. There’s art galleries, a pioneer museum, children’s museum, and museum of the American West. And, of course, places to fill your belly. “Biscuits and gravy can fix almost anything,” says a sign outside a restaurant I eventually enter. 

Downtown Lander, Wyoming

Main Street in Lander, Wyoming

Main Street has signs promoting Lander’s past scattered throughout. Placards point to historic buildings that are still there or once were. The town was incorporated in 1890, and its namesake is Frederick W. Lander. He’s responsible for the Lander Trail, a wagon road popularized by early explorers and pioneers heading West. Lander eventually became the terminus for a railway line, and led to the town’s slogan “Where the rails end and the trails begin.”

I’m introduced to those trails by Feike and the twins, Remmy and Beanie, one afternoon. They take me to Sinks Canyon State Park, about six miles from the downtown area. Feike tells me a river flows through a limestone cave and emerges about a quarter-mile downstream. There, at the river’s edge, we see trout from a lookout point. A fairly quick walk from there, and we’re hearing the river’s roar as it makes its way over medium-sized rocks. The kids play in the sand near the water.   

Remmy at Sinks Canyon State Park

Remmy at Sinks Canyon State Park

This uniqueness is also what has brought—and kept—the van Dijk’s to Lander. “Where we live, we choose to live in a place that's very rural,” says Noelle. “Everyone calls it the last frontier. People come here to have that recluse experience, but also the living-off-the-land experience and also being able to forge your way and feel like your children can grow up with you around.”

Of course, the town has its problems. Jobs are scarce. The winter weather can be hell, says Noelle, and their 16-year-old Toyota Camry with front-wheel drive is barely a match for snow. That’s the reason all of Remmy’s surgeries, which still occur in Salt Lake City after an extensive drive, are done in warmer weather. 

And then there’s the fires. Rural conditions here and in the surrounding states make these areas prime targets for wildfires. As for home fires, local fire officials tell me that the majority of structure fires they respond to are in the home setting. Across America, home is where fire is still having the most devastating effect. According to NFPA’s research, 80 percent of all fire deaths happen at home each year. Seven people die each day from them. Today’s new home environment—very different than what was seen some 40 or 50 years ago—is placing firefighters at increased risk for injury, cancer, or worse. Knowing this and all that Feike has lost, I’m baffled when he tells me he’s joined the ranks of the fire service. But it’s something he has to do for Noah and Zephy. 

Beanie at Sinks Canyon State Park

Beanie at Sinks Canyon State Park

America has seen some tremendous achievements when it comes to reducing its home fire problem, mainly following the invention and wide use of the smoke alarm. Forty years ago, almost 6,000 (people in U.S.) died from home fires. Today, that number has been reduced to about 2,500 people annually. The wide use of codes and standards, the enforcement of these codes, and increased awareness and education of fire safety has contributed to this success. 

However, the fire problem is still a big one. While the number of people dying in home fires has dropped, the home fire death rate per 1,000 reported fires has remained relatively the same over the past 40 years. What this means is that a person’s risk of dying from a reported home fire hasn’t fluctuated much through the years. Furthermore, if you tally the number of deaths associated with natural disasters in America each year, home fire deaths easily surpass that number. 

What’s more, fires in today’s new homes are nothing like they once were. Research has proven that the fire dynamic inside homes has evolved. Today’s popular homebuilding materials are made with engineered lumber, a structural member made with wood fibers and materials bonded with some form of adhesive. These materials, popularly termed lightweight construction, are more economical and environmentally friendly than traditional forms of lumber originally used to build homes. “They're very, very strong,” says Tim Travers, an NFPA regional sprinkler specialist. “They can span long distances without columns. They're lightweight so that to install them, it's a little bit easier for carpenters working on these homes. And when they're not properly protected, they burn very readily and collapse.” 

Studies by Underwriters Laboratories have shown that homes built with unprotected, lightweight construction collapsed in six minutes—versus more than 18 minutes with homes built with legacy materials, such as traditional lumber. Today’s furniture is also playing a critical role in fire spread. At one point made with leather, wool, or cotton, today’s upholstered furniture is typically filled with synthetic materials that is being likened to foam gasoline.

What’s worse, says Travers, is that these toxins emitted during fire are having a deadly effect on America’s fire service. “Cancer is one of the leading deaths of firefighters today," he says. "And clearly, with the new home furnishings that we have today, the gases that they're emitting and the toxins that are being breathed in and absorbed, even a firefighter that's in full protective clothing is still absorbing toxins into their skin. And it's a problem that's going to get worse and worse and worse. I'm a cancer survivor. I had job-related cancer. And we've seen so many firefighters who have died of cancer because of late diagnosis or lack of routine checkups." 

Despite all of these dangers for the fire service community out there, Feike doesn’t seem fazed by them. Initially, Noelle and the children were less than thrilled. “Noelle said, ‘Ok, I understand what you’re doing. I’m not liking it, but I understand what you’re doing,’” says Feike. “I want this to be something where I can honor the boys, but also can find healing.”

Joining the fire service wasn’t solely about fighting fires. Seeking that adrenaline rush wasn’t of interest to him Feike decided as chaplain, he could use his expertise. Offering physical and emotional support, he tells me, is his way of giving comfort to other families that have experienced tragedy. He understands their pain. He feels it as they feel it. 

His training complete, he was eventually called to the scene of a home fire. The home was fully engulfed, with toys scattered throughout. 

"They waited a long time to put me in a burning building,” says Feike. “And I understood that. I'm going to be running into a burning building. People put their trust in me. As I enter, I can't see anything in front of me. Smoke is everywhere. I am smelling smoke. Do I hear the fire? Yes, excessively. Am I feeling the heat? Yes, excessively. I'm focused. I trust the individual that's in front of me. I am not the first person, but I'm following somebody's lead. I was holding onto the assistant chief. But I could barely see him. But I knew that I was in good hands. And at the same time, when I took over the fire hose ... I knew that I was capable of defeating this demon that I was not able to defeat my own fire. 

Feike in firefighter gear

Firefighter Feike van Dijk and son, Remmy (Facebook)

"You feel so empowered ... to fight one of the strongest, significant powers ... that's out there. This is a demon in my own life that I'm capable of fighting. Destroying something that once was able to kill you from the inside—it’s empowering. It's insane what a human body can do."

Feike, in his new role, has slowly learned to take mastery over his demons and fire, the physical force that robbed him of two of his children. But what if there was something in place that can intervene the minute fire happens at home? Something that might put an end to stories like the van Dijk’s? That something exists, and it’s led to a nationwide battle. 

The story continues. Listen to the conclusion of "The Survivors."

Fred Durso, Jr., is communications manager for NFPA's Fire Sprinkler Initiative. "The Survivors" is produced by the National Fire Protection Association in cooperation with the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. 

Why are Today's New Homes a Cause for Concern?