Thursday, February 15, 2007

Settin' The House On Fire

Everybody has done things that they wish they hadn't. Some are worse than others. Some are not so bad.

Sometimes we make a conscious decision that turns out to be the wrong one. We regret them, but hey, things happen. Do the best you can and go on with life.

Sometimes, we do things that are the right things, that turn out to cause other problems. Occasionally, those other problems cause us nightmares.

For example, a friend of mine used to live in an older farm house. Used to is a key phrase here. As in most older farmhouses, it was a pier and beam foundation, which means that beneath the floor was an airspace between the ground and the house. This was closed in with siding, but still open enough to allow air and cold temperatures. The water pipes for the house were there.
One cold morning my friend woke up and had no water in the bathroom. The pipe had frozen, although it had not burst yet.
What to do?
Why, thaw the pipe of course.
Off to the garage to get the cutting torch...

Anyway, my friend now lives in a "new" home with a concrete slab foundation.

Can you imagine how bad you would feel if you caught your own house on fire accidentally? Could you imagine how much worse it would be if you were a fireman?

Friends, I know the answer to both questions. Sometimes you feel like your world is ending.

The night I set my house on fire was one of those times.


My wife and I had sold our house. We were moving into a rent house in another city. We would be renting while we built a house on some property we had bought.

The house we were renting was an older farm house that had been built right after Lewis and Clark had passed through. It was in fact old enough that the electricity had been added some time after (read many years after) they had built the house. In fact the water heater (and I would bet the plumbing) had been added as well, into what had been a closet.

Like most moves, there seemed to be no end to the things we had to deliver and unpack. We had been moving furniture and household goods all day. Part of the reason we were able to move in was because the house had been sold and the new owners had not finished all the little things they wanted to do. Things like fix doors so they would close and lock, and install light fixtures. Being Mr Fixit, I made a deal with the owner to rent and help with some of the fix ups.

After moving all day, packing and unpacking, rearranging and cleaning up, I started to fix a few little things. While my wife is cleaning the kitchen and putting away our dishes, I can feel a draft. The whole house was a draft. As I look into the water heater closet, I see that the the plumbing going through the floor is going through a hole about twice the size it needs to be. You could open the closet door and see the ground beneath the house.

Off we go to the hardware store for a few cans of expanding foam insulation. If you haven't seen it, they are aerosol cans that have a liquid foam in them. When you spray it it expands and sticks to wood or metal. It dries to a hard lightweight insulation. I made sure to get the type that was non-flammable**. We came back with cleaning supplies and the insulation for the hole beneath the water heater.

Did you know that those cans use propane and iso-butane to pressurize and expel the foam?

Did I mention that it was a natural gas water heater? With a pilot light?

I opened the door to the water heater closet and got down on my knees. My wife was unloading the cleaning supplies. I pushed the application nozzle to the hole and pulled the trigger. The foam came out and began to expand. I had used almost half of the can. The hole was just about closed up.......


Propane, when mixed in correct proportions with air, burns in a beautiful blue flame. It is especially pretty in a dark closet. The pretty blue flame filled the floor of the closet, and just as quickly went out. But not before setting the still expanding foam on fire, and singeing the hair off of my hand.

Time stopped.
My mind worked in a way I had never previously thought possible. In less than a second, I had remembered my friend setting his house on fire; I remembered and did a mental inventory of all my worldly goods it had taken all day to move into this house; I quickly ran the calculations of what I could save-not much; I remembered that one of my friends from my full time department was also a volunteer fireman in this town; I contemplated all the ways he would remind me of this and tell everyone in the department; I also remembered how many fires I had been to that could have been stopped had the occupant not tried to fight the fire before calling the fire department.

As that first second passed, I began to recite, out loud, the firefighter call for personal assistance; "Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!"

The speed that I had previously found in my mind now transferred to my body. I sprang up (yes damn it I sprang!) and realized we had no fire extinguisher. We didn't even have a garden hose. I barked commands at my wife-"Hand me the tea pitcher and call the fire department!"

I leaped boxes in a single bound, I turned on the water in the sink and filled the pitcher, as my wife searched frantically for the wireless phone. I left the water running as I jumped back to the open door with the flames on the floor. I took the pitcher and made a bea-u-ti-ful shot on the fire....
Which fell burning through the hole in the floor and under the house.

"Oh shit! Oh Fuck!" I had reached to chorus of the chant.

"Have you found the phone?" I ask over my shoulder as I fill the pitcher again.
I turn and make an astoundingly agile leap, landing in front of my wife with the phone in her hand.

"What is the number?" she asked


And as if in a scene from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, all action stopped. I calmly stood there and in my most sarcastic voice asked her:
"How about 911?"
"Oh yeah!" she says.

And just like that, the action started back again.

The fire department, whose station was across the road, arrived in a matter of minutes. By that time I had turned off the gas, and removed the access panel to the crawl space beneath the house. I had managed to extinguish the fire, with only a minor black mark on the wood floor, and a complete loss of hair on my right hand and forearm.

I met the firemen at the door and told them proudly "I got it. It's out."

"How did it start?" he asked.

"Not real sure. Something around the water heater. I have the gas off, I'll get it checked before I turn it back on." I lied.

"Good job." he says.

I had never been happier to put out a fire.
And I still don't feel bad for lying about it either.

Mr Fixit

** non-flammable means that the foam would not burn as easily after it had fully cured.


Ambulance Driver said...

"As that first second passed, I began to recite, out loud, the firefighter call for personal assistance; "Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!""


Anonymous said...

Make that two of us ROFLMAO!!

DW said...

I ain't laughing, I feel your pain, having educated myself acouple of times.

Maltese Cross said...

It's funny the many things that race through your head within the first second of knowing something bad is happening...especially something that is your fault. Been there, done that, and I feel for you brother.