“Every 24 seconds, a fire department in the United States responds to a fire somewhere in the nation.” – 2017 National Fire Protection Association Report
On a Tuesday in August 2017 around 2 pm I was working from home. I had just wrapped up a meeting and was getting some food ready.
At the time I had just purchased an air fryer was obsessed with how fast, efficient and versatile it was at cooking. I had been using it for cooking everything and so it was my primary cooking method for cooking food at this point.
I was not quite ready to eat so I put the food in the air fryer but did not turn it on. However, the air fryer was plugged into the wall and left near the stove.
I went into the bedroom to wrap up one last thing before eating. From the bedroom, I heard some faint crackling sounds coming from the kitchen.
Since it was a breezy Summer day and the kitchen window was open I did not think too much about it. I thought it was just a few leaves outside in the breeze. I ignored the sound because I did not smell anything nor did I see any smoke and I knew I was not cooking anything at the moment.
A minute later the crackling sounds persisted and so I decided to investigate.
When I entered the kitchen I saw a dark cloud of smoke emanating from the air fryer which was fully engulfed in flames. I immediately froze up in shock.
I could not believe what I saw and for a few seconds, my mind refused to accept that this was happening to me.
When I snapped out of the daze I started to panic, grabbed some kitchen towels and started to swat at the fire trying to put it out.
The kitchen towels were too small, the fire was too strong and my hands got too close. I burned the fingers on my left hand.
Realizing that I was not going to be able to put out this fire myself, I rushed out of the apartment to get some help. I knocked on neighbor’s doors trying to elicit some help but no one answered as this was the middle of the day.
I started to panic even more and struggled to figure out my next step. I pulled out my phone and with burned fingers tried my best to dial 911.
While on the phone, I rushed to the nearest fire extinguisher. The fire extinguisher was encased in a metal box with thick glass. There were no instructions on how to break nor was there a device to break it with. I smashed the glass with my right hand, pulled out the fire extinguisher and cut up most of my fingers on my right hand in the process.
While communicating my address and situation to the 911 agent, I went back into the apartment.
The fire had now doubled in size and there was smoke all throughout the apartment. The fire was burning much hotter and was starting to spread to the other parts of the kitchen.
I sprayed half of the fire extinguisher’s liquid onto the base of the fire putting it out. I paused for a moment and saw the fire restarted. I sprayed the fire again emptying the entire contents all around the air fryer and surrounding kitchen.
I turned off all the power from the circuit breaker box (in case this was an electrical fueled fire) and opened as many windows in the apartment as I could.
I kept the door open and ran outside. On my way out I did my best to alert all neighbors to get out of their homes in safety.
A few minutes later the firefighters came and ventilated most of the remaining smoke in the apartment. They performed checks in the apartment to assess the damage and create an incident report. They tended to my injuries and checked me to ensure I had not inhaled too much smoke.
They recommended that I go to the ER to get a more thorough examination and treatment for my injuries.
During the next few hours, my girlfriend and I had to juggle: 1. Going to the ER 2. Getting something to eat 3. Finding a living situation for the night and next few days 3. Starting the claim with the insurance 4. Gathering clothes and supplies from the apartment to live off 5. Informing my job about the situation and that I would not be able to come in for the next few days.
Thankfully the ER visit determined that the injuries were not severe.
I got examined and bandaged up in the span of an hour. I was told to have a follow-up visit the next day with my physician but other than that I would make a full recovery without any additional treatment.
This was a massive load off my back and allowed me to ease my worrying to only concentrate on dealing with the after-damage of the fire.
Hotels were extremely expensive and unavailable in the area. We had to call up friends to see who could host us for the night. Thankfully we had some friends who offered us the spare bedroom in their house for the night. This gave us a place to stay until we figured out what would be covered by the insurance.
I spent the whole next day on the phone with insurance, property management, and contractors. I had no idea what was the protocol, how soon the repairs could start and what I would be liable for.
There were two claims started.
A personal damages claim by me to reimburse lost property during the fire as well as pay for lodging and food during the repair of the apartment.
And a liability claim to pay for the damages to the apartment. I learned that I only had $1200 to pay for lodging, food, and gas during the repairs.
I also learned that the repairs could not start until the liability claim was resolved and payment was issued which would take at least a month at best. To see how I dealt with the insurance, property management and contractors and lessons learned please see part 2 of this post.
Important Lessons I Learned
Through an event like this, I learned a lot of valuable lessons. I would like to pass this information forward because it could potentially save or help someone who finds themselves in a similar situation.
1. Fire is much hotter than you think.
The average flame burns at 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Human skin blisters with limited exposure to heat over 170 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you see can visibly see a flame and touch it or even get close to it, you will be burned.
This is probably a no-brainer but due to tv and media, my brain did not consider fires that ravage forests, burn buildings and kill people on the same scale as a fire in my kitchen. I believed (until I was burned) that I could probably quickly touch this fire or put it out with a simple kitchen cloth and my hands without sustaining any burns.
This was a mistake.
In doing so, I received 2nd-degree burns on my hands and the scars are still visible. These burns took weeks to heal and could have been avoided.
2. Kitchen fires spread very quickly.
The kitchen is typically a very dense place, there are lots of flammable items very close to each other. A small fire can easily grow much larger and spread by coming in contact with wooden cupboards, cooking oils, flammable utensils, open food.
Between the time that I discovered the fire and came back with the extinguisher, the fire had at least doubled in size and was on the verge of spreading into the living room. A hole in the ceiling had been burned from the smoke and most of the apartment was covered in thick black smoke.
Had I spent a moment longer searching for the fire extinguisher, putting out the fire with my hands or running out to get help, the fire would have surely spread to the living room and become too large to contain.
3. Immediately rush to a fire extinguisher.
As mentioned in the previous point, with fires, the clock is ticking and every moment it is feeding on something and growing.
Do not try to put out a fire using unconventional means (water the from the sink, kitchen rags, hands) because these will not work and only waste time. You need to put out the whole fire out in one step.
The most effective tool for this is a fire extinguisher. It delivers a powerful, thick and cooling substance that can douse a fire. It also allows you to put out the fire from a safe distance, preventing any smoke or fire harm to you.
Every apartment should have these devices laying around within close proximity. Grab one of these as soon as you see a fire and use liberally.
Had I resorted to the fire extinguisher instead of trying to put out the fire using kitchen rags and my hand, I would have substantially reduced the damage to the kitchen, avoided burns on my hands and reduced the smoke damage to the rest of the apartment.
4. Know where your fire extinguishers are located and how to access them.
If you are in an apartment complex it is required by code to have a fire extinguisher unit within 50-100 feet of your unit.
Make a mental note of the location as well as a secondary location in case that you need more than one canister or there is a malfunction.
Having the location memorized will save you valuable time and allow you to put out the fire before it gets too large.
Knowing exactly where my fire extinguisher was located allowed me to easily run to it and grab it. Had I not known I would have had to search for a map or gone off looking for it. This would have surely resulted in the fire spreading and well beyond the need for a fire extinguisher.
Moving forward, I may keep a mini fire extinguisher in my kitchen just so that I can immediately put out a fire without having to run outside to get one and waste valuable time.
5. Do not solely rely on smoke detectors.
Fires do not always produce smoke immediately.
The smoke you see is a release of hydrocarbons evaporating from what the fire comes in contact with. If the fire is too hot or in the process of just starting there might not be any smoke emitted. This means that smoke detectors may not detect a fire until there is sufficient smoke emitted.
In my case, the smoke detector was a sufficient distance away from the kitchen that the fire would have gone on for minutes before tripping the detector.
If I had waited for the smoke detector, the fire would have been too large and powerful to stop.
Smoke detectors are good warning measures but do not put all of your faith in them. Trust your instincts like sounds and smells.
If something feels off, investigate and double check. Catching a fire before it emits enough smoke to trip your smoke alarm could mean the difference between being able to put it out or it being too large to control
6. Ventilate the space you are in (if you can).
Smoke can be very harmful.
Your concentration and efforts are likely on putting out the fire, you may not realize the room filling up with smoke and how much you are inhaling.
Smoke inhaled can turn into carbon in your lungs and lead to may medical complications after. Even worse, you could pass out from the smoke damage and not be able to vacate the premises during a fire.
When I was trying to put out the fire and talking with the 911 dispatcher, I definitely inhaling some smoke. It is hard to tell how much I inhaled because I did not pay attention until after the fire was out.
After the event, I noticed that my eyes, nose, and throat contained traces of ash and soot. Thankfully, I did not inhale enough to cause any health issues, but it easily could have been the case.
If possible, open any and all windows and doors near you. It will allow the smoke to be ventilated and give you some breathing air in case you need it.
Venting the premises will also prevent the amount of smoke and carbon that goes into your carpet, furniture, and rooms in the rest of your house.
7. Turn of all the power from a circuit breaker (if you can).
Some fires might be fueled by electricity. A running burner, oven or microwave might be the cause of the fire and to extinguish or slow down the fire they need to be turned off.
If the fire is too hot or larger there might not be a way to access the off switch for these appliances. In this case, the circuit breaker might be a useful asset because you can quickly turn off all power to a room or house in one swoop. Doing this will slow down the fire and allow you to keep a safe distance.
When I was spraying the fire with the extinguisher, the fire restarted again. This was definitely due to something electric.
If I had kept the power on, the fire may have potentially restarted again and continued to spread without my knowing.
Cutting out the power to the apartment immediately eliminated the risk of the fire being fueled by any running electrical current or appliance.
8. Use something to break a fire extinguisher glass (other than your bare hands).
According to the International Fire Extinguisher Requirements and References in the International Fire Code, there are no specific regulations for the casing of the fire extinguisher cabinet.
Fire extinguishers could be contained in glass or plastic shields, with or without breaking devices. You might have to shatter and navigate through the sharp glass to get a fire extinguisher.
I did not realize this but the glass casing of my apartment’s fire extinguisher was made of thick glass and had no device to assist in shattering. I unknowingly used my bare hands to break the glass and received many deep cuts.
I also later learned that breaking the glass using your own hands accepts a special liability.
In legal terms, this falls under an act of assumption of risk. By breaking the glass with your hands you are assuming the risk and cannot then pass that liability onto any other party. Thus any injuries sustained was my own fault and liability.
When in doubt use a shoe or other item to break the casing. Ensure that the casing is fully cleared before reaching into the cabinet to get the fire extinguisher.
9. Wear shoes (if you can).
When leaving the property, put on a pair of shoes if possible.
Glass from the fire extinguisher casing or general damage that could be caused by the fire or firemen could be on the ground. You do not want to cut your feet on anything adding further injury.
In addition, you do not know if it will be safe to reenter your house and so there might not be an opportunity to go back and get shoes. And if you have to go to other places you will now have to deal with the issue of finding some shoes as well.
In my case, I did not wear shoes and so on my way out I stepped on glass and had glass splinters to painfully remove later.
On top of that, I was stuck outside for hours without any shoes or footwear since the firemen did not allow us to re-enter the apartment as they performed their duties.
When it came time to go to the ER I had to spend extra time to get ahold of a pair of shoes rather than tending to my injuries.
10. Do not immediately rush to call 911 during a fire.
Calling 911 is an important and necessary step, however, doing this should never put at risk of harm.
Calling 911 is not a one-minute conversation. The dispatcher will ask you a series of questions to identify your situation, health condition and address.
If you are in the middle of putting out a fire or getting to safety, you will not be able to also keep up with a conversation. It is best to call when you are in a safe place and can provide all of the necessary information.
I spent too much energy and time unlocking my phone and describing my situation to the 911 dispatcher. I probably inhaled smoke doing this and had to juggle a phone and a fire extinguisher.
Had I realized that 911 would already be triggered when I got the fire extinguisher or by pulling the fire alarm outside my apartment I could have easily done that then keep up a conversation.
Furthermore, I remember not being able to clearly think and answer the questions asked by the 911 dispatcher. I had to repeat my answers multiple times because of the sounds of the smoke alarm and because I was panicking.
Accessing a fire extinguisher, pulling a fire alarm or exiting through a fire exit will automatically alert 911 and provide the information they need to dispatch help. Calling on top of that would be redundant and you much rather use that extra hand or concentration on putting out a fire or getting to safety.
11. There are friends that are for show and friends who are truly there for you.
It is crucial to know who you can depend on when you need help.
Identify a small group of trustworthy and dependable individuals who you know will be there to help when needed. When tragedy or hardship strikes, you will not have the time to call each friend that you have and ask if they can help you.
I learned which friends are dependable and supportive. I also learned who are those who are “friends” by association but really do not care much about your well being.
When we needed a place to stay for the night after discovering that we could not enter our place, very few friends stepped up. When I explained my story and what had happened, very few friends showed concern and empathy.
Bonus points if you can identify friends with who can help you in different situations (ex: someone with a truck for moving, someone with a spare bedroom in case you are homeless).
12. Focus on the Positive not the Negative
Despite what the cause, actions were taken to resolve and damage was of the fire, try to convince yourself that it is not your fault.
Fires are complicated and definitely not intentional. No one sets out to start a fire or make it worse. Whatever actions or mistakes were made by you were done as the best possible action given the information you had at the moment. Instead, focus on the positives.
Focus on what was saved, what you still have. It is possible to rebuild and return back to normal.
On the day of the fire, I kept replaying the events over and over in my mind.
I held myself accountable because it was a stupid mistake that resulted in such a bad outcome. I mentally punished myself by thinking of things that I could have done which might have prevented the fire or put out the fire earlier or prevented my injuries. My mind was mentally drained. I could not stop replaying those same thoughts. I could not sleep, I could not think logically. I was constantly on edge and stressed.
Had I accepted what happened, not blamed myself and focused on the future, I could have saved myself so much anguish. Looking back, all of that worrying did me no good and was ultimately useless.
My 7 Step Key Action Plan
Knowing what I do now, here are the steps I would take to ensure a safe, efficient and effective strategy for dealing with a fire in the future.
1. Be more attentive and trust my instincts.
At the first crackling sound I would investigate the sound.
If there is a small fire or something starting to burn, I could have caught it and put it out with minimal or no damage. I may have even been able to stop the fire from happening in the first place if I just did that.
2. Turn off the power
Next, I would kill the power to the entire apartment using the circuit breaker box.
I later found out that the fire was electrical.
This would allow me to stay a safe distance away from the fire and quickly turn off all of the power from one location rather than running around the house.
With the power off, any potential electrical damage would have been limited and prevented the fire from restarting when I put it out for the first time.
3. Grab the fire extinguisher. Put out the fire
As soon as the power has been disabled, I would immediately rush to a designated fire extinguisher, smash the case with a shoe and grab the fire extinguisher.
With the fire extinguisher, I would empty half the canister or until the entire fire was snuffed. I would wait a few moments to see if the fire restarts again. If so, then continue to use the fire extinguisher and repeat the process.
Grabbing the fire extinguisher would have alerted 911 to my location and fire trucks would be arriving shortly after just in case I could not put out the fire myself.
4. Ventilate the house.
As soon as the fire is completely out I would immediately open all of the windows of the house.
I would try to get as much of the smoke outside to reduce the number of carbon trails, stains to the furniture and ash that gets spread across the house.
5. Put on Shoes. Grab Wallet and Car Keys. Run outside.
Once I have opened as many windows as possible, there is no reason for me to stay.
I would grab a solid pair of shoes, my wallet, and car keys and exit the house. This would prevent me from stepping on any glass or debris on my way out. If I needed to go to the ER or somewhere for the night, I would have the essentials to get me there.
I would also try to get to a safe distance away from the property just in case there was any structural damage done by the fire.
By this point, the fire crews should have already arrived and you do not want to get in their way by still being in the place of the incident.
6. Rise your mouth. Clean your eyes, nose, and ears for any ash or soot.
With the fire crews on the scene, I would flag one of them down and ask them to help me remove any excess smoke or ash on my face.
This residue is toxic and could end up in your system if you don’t remove it immediately.
7. Take notes of as many details of the event as you can.
While the events are still fresh in your mind I would document as many details of the event as possible.
These details will be necessary and vital when you are filing your claim as well as creating a defense in case of any liability claims against you. Good items to capture are:
- Date and time
- Cause of fire
I had forgotten to do this and when it came time to recall the event to the insurance I could not recall certain details clearly because I had to deal with so much after the event that I had forgotten.
I wanted to share my story and the lessons learned because incidents like this can happen to anyone. Every 24 seconds, a fire department in the United States responds to a fire somewhere in the nation. This is a serious matter and more common than we may want to believe.
I hope that the lessons and learning shared provide some useful information. And I hope that you never have to use this information but in the event that you do, I hope that it helps.
What Are Your Fire Stories or Advice?
What I’ve shared above are learnings from my own experience. However, I am sure there is plenty more that I missed. I would love to hear what lessons/techniques you have learned or if you have any corrections to my points. Feel free to comment below with some examples. Please share so we can all learn and grow.