I wish to share with you my pitfalls, follies, and other lessons learned from a small fire in my yard.
I wake up around the same time every night, thanks to nocturia. However, last night was different. I saw a red hue cast was over my backyard. I wondered what it could be. Was it a neighbor with a car in it’s backyard, some unusual atmospheric phenomenon, alien invasion? The lights weren’t flashing so it wasn’t first responders. My stomach felt like a rock dropped in it. I was thinking: “Please don’t be what I think it is.” I got closer to the window and saw what nobody wants to see at 2:30 in the morning. Flames. The flames were 10 feet high, shooting out of what was formerly known as my compost bin. And I knew instantly that it was my fault.
The evening before, I had emptied our backyard firepit of ash that filled it from a fun family hot dog roast that marked the end of a long cold winter and the beginning of spring. (At least locally.) The ashes were over 24 hours old and I figured that they were dead enough. Apparently, I was very wrong. We hadn’t had a wet winter, and the compost must have been drier than I thought. I had a little thought when I dumped it was to wet down the ash, just in case. But I didn’t want to drag the hose out of its winter storage.
I woke up my wife and told her to call 911 as I threw on my bathrobe and stuffed my feet into the pair of running shoes I keep by my bed. I must have looked quite comical in that get up but I needed to keep the fire from spreading. We had a fire extinguisher under the kitchen sink. I yanked open the cabinet and searched for it. Where was it? There’s no fire extinguisher in here! Oh, there it is, buried in the back corner. I flew out the door my robe. I ran to the fire, fumbling as I prepared the extinguisher. That small kitchen firefighting tool knocked down a few flames, but as it ran out I realized that I had been outclassed in the first round. I needed the garden hose.
I ran to the shed. I stared at the lock on the door I cursed my paranoia and ran back inside to find the key. I had one on both my key ring and my wife’s key ring. Reaching into the key bowl to feel nothing, I remember I left my keys on my dresser to help me get ready early in the morning. Grabbing the key ring and returning to the shed I opened it and searched for the long coil that hopefully might assist me in conquering the blaze.
Attaching the hose to the hose bib was fun in the dark with a wild dose of panic and adrenaline pumping through me as my heart thumped away at 200 beats per minute. I did my best firefighter impression as I twisted the knob and ran with the hose across the yard. With each step I was praying in my heart, ‘Please be long enough, please be long enough”’
I made it and opened the brass fitting on the end of the hose and waited an eternity for the water to rush down the hose. It was only about 5 seconds but felt like 5 years. Then the water finally started to flow and a blast of liquid shot out. As I sprayed down my mistake I began to regain ground in the battle. Soon, I had beaten down the flames and then took on the coals. As soon as there were no more orange showed I left the hose emptying into the pile of muck. I realized that I didn’t want the fire department to knock down my gate when they got here, so I unlocked it. Firefighters don’t hesitate to destroy stuff. I got a shovel out of the shed to go stir the ashes and make sure everything got thoroughly saturated.
I also flipped on the exterior lights to help shine the way. An independent light was making its way up my driveway. I saw that one of my colleagues from local law enforcement was behind it.
Thankfully, I had double-knotted the tie on my robe to keep my decency. I showed off the effects of my poor judgment at the compost bin to the officer and gave a quick rundown as I alternated stirring the pile and hosing it down again.
The good officer walked back down the drive to guide the local volunteer fire department in the drive. Meanwhile, I went inside to give my wife a summary of the events, so far. I returned to the pile and met the first of the local firefighters as they showed up. The look of sadness and disappointment filled his face as he realized that he got up at 3:00 am to play with a fire, and that someone had beaten him to the punch. Firefighters hate when you put out the fire before they get there. He said that they were “going to soak it down for good measure.”
The sight of a fire truck parked outside my carport will now be in my mind forever. My friend’s police car and an ambulance also packed their way into the little culdesac we lived on. I helped another firefighter in full bunker gear, minus the SCBA kit, carry a hose much larger than my garden hose to the smoking remains of my compost and fence. More volunteers showed up including the lay clergyman for my local church and I tried to avoid the embarrassment of standing out in my yard with just a bathrobe and boxers on.
They tore apart the charcoal that once was the wood of my compost bin and gave the pile a good stir and soak. One firefighter jumped on top of the fence to check the neighbor’s yard for damage. As soon as he got down it seemed another walked up and asked if there was any damage on the other side of the fence. Before the first could answer, he punched through three char-covered planks of the fence and stuck his whole head through. “Nope. looks good here.” I internally facepalmed and screamed at the same time. I told you firefighters destroy stuff. Today, it was my fence.
As everyone left, I remembered that my neighbors have a dog. A large gaping hole in my fence stared me in the face. Before the adrenaline completely came down, I snatched a scrap piece of plywood and an impact driver from my shop and placed it over the hole, attaching it with power screws. It’s not pretty but it should work until I get home from work and can swing by the hardware store and buy some replacement fence planks.
Some Lessons Learned
What did I learn from this nocturnal adventure? If we can’t learn from our mistakes, then we have the wrong pastime as preppers.
- I need more than one fire extinguisher, and I need bigger ones, too.
- I am going to add an extra house and padlock key to a keyring to keep in one secure place for emergencies like this.
- Don’t leave ashes anywhere without soaking them.
- I am going to forget about compost bins and just go with chickens. This was the fast and stressful way of clearing the spot where we were going to build our coop this year.
- I had no external property fire plan. We have the classic house fire plan, but something like this had never crossed my mind. Next winter, I am going to leave a drained hose near my spigot.
Some pats on the back:
- I had some clothing ready that I could toss on to cover up and shoes to put on my feet quickly and without warning.
- My wife and I communicated well and were able to split tasks.
- I kept my head and didn’t panic and get lost in the weeds. I was able to think through my tasks and focus on one thing at a time, I also managed to stay calm and get things ready for when help arrived.
Yes, yes, mistakes were made, and I learned from them. Of course, this happened just before we were going to take a nice long vacation. So it added half a dozen tasks to my to-do list before we leave. My wife spoke with the neighbors beyond the fence, and they were kind and understanding. I got my compost accelerated (just kidding) and it has given me some more motivation to get the garden ready for the next year.
My wife and I are thankful that no one was hurt and that no major property damage occurred. I am also thankful it happened in the middle of the night and it didn’t wake our young children. I can just imagine the psychological effect that a raging fire like that would have on our kids if they had been playing outside when it started.
While not the best, and thankfully not the worst, fire that hit unexpectedly in the middle of the night, I feel that it was a good example in my life of the type of emergency that could hit us all. Also, it was a good chance to see some holes in my own preparations. So now with this experience, I can plan ahead better.
Imagine that you live downriver of a dam that burst and you get a reverse 911 notification in the middle of the night to evacuate. Or pick any other bug out or crisis scenario you have mulling in your mind. While not wanting to repeat it, it was a good measure of personal policy and procedures.
Take the opportunity to run some mental exercises of what you would do if you had something like this pop up on you. May God bless and watch over y’all.