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Learn Not to Burn February 28, 2011

Posted by J. in Genius.

Sparky the Fire Dog: Giving me nightmares since 1975.

Fire Prevention Week used to scare the crap out of me.

Starting in first grade, there was one week in October set aside to remind me that everything in my life had the potential to burst into flames at any minute, and that if I failed to memorize and follow some very important instructions, I would die a horrible, painful death.  If I was lucky.

Fire Prevention Week never prepared me for a house fire.  Fire Prevention Week gave me a lifelong fear of burning to death in a fire.

Thanks, Sparky.

Here are a few of the things I remember that haunt me from Fire Prevention Week:

1.  Stop, Drop, and Roll!  If you are on fire, drop to the ground and roll around to put the flames out.

Let that sink in for a minute.  IF YOU ARE ON FIRE…  What possible good can come of putting the image of bursting into flames into the impressionable and imaginative mind of a first-grader?  I grew up around fireplaces and wood stoves and a gas cooking range, so the odds of my clothing catching fire at some point were pretty good.  I have to admit that.  But that’s not what came to my mind.  My five-year old brain didn’t go, “Oh, that’s good information to have if a spark jumps and ignites my nightie when I’m standing by the fire!”  I pictured myself immolated by flames, enveloped in an orange fireball as my skin and hair turned to ash and floated away while my bones melted.

What part of Stop, Drop, and Roll did you not understand? Christ and niblets...

Curiously enough, I think of Fire Rule Number One every time I see someone catch fire on TV.  I wonder to myself (okay, occasionally I wonder it out loud, too) why they don’t Stop, Drop, and Roll.  Did a fireman not visit their classroom every year and hand out his terrifying Sparky coloring books?  Guess not.  I imagine it’s hard to think straight when you have flames licking at your eyebrows.  It would throw me.

2.  If you think there’s a fire outside of your room, feel the door before opening it.  Don’t touch the doorknob because it might be hot!

This used to panic me to no end.  We had doors on our rooms but we didn’t sleep with them shut at night.  They were kept open to allow what little heat (from the white-hot wood stove) came upstairs to circulate, and also if we were sick during the night and needed Ma she could hear us.

I knew that if fire came rushing up those stairs, there was nothing between me and the angry tongues of hell that would consume me.  If the smoke didn’t get me first, of course.

3.  Keep low!  Crawl on your hands and knees to stay below the smoke.

As if the fire wasn’t bad enough, the smoke can kill me too?  What the FUCK?

Do you know what it does to a kid when you combine the idea that “smoke kills” with the occasional whiff of wood smoke wafting up the stairs (through my open door) from where Dad opened the stove to fill it?

You get a Poops that can’t sleep is what you get.

4.  Plan an escape route!  Every room should have two exits, and you should have practice fire drills with your family.

There was no way my Dad was having a freaking fire drill after working all day.  He was going to eat his dinner, be grateful it was over, and go out to mow the lawn or cut wood.  I tried to come up with a personal escape plan on my own, but if there was a fire on the other side of my bedroom door, I was hosed.  I had two bedroom windows and both led to straight, steep, two-story drops to the ground below.  I asked if we could get a fire escape ladder and was told not to worry about it.

Plan A was to go out the front door.  Plan B was to go out my sister’s window to the porch roof where I would break both legs dropping to the ground.

Plan C was just praying the flames took me quickly.

When my parents remodeled and built a bathroom addition onto the back of the house, I now had an easier escape route and felt a little better.  I still had to crawl onto a roof and drop to the ground, but I was taller by then and figured a sprained ankle was better than a fiery death.

The other thing I distinctly remember learning back in the day was how to recognize when you have a chimney fire.  This is important information to have if you grow up in New England and heat with wood.  I knew that if I heard a loud WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP sound coming from the area of the stove that I probably should call the fire department.

Okay, Sparky.  Will do.

Fast forward a bunch of years and I’ve gone away to school, to the rarefied air of Newport, and away from the horrors and drudgery of heating with wood.  I went from college to touring and while a bus crash was a distinct possibility, and I did once stay in a hotel that had a small fire, the idea of burning to death was pretty far from my thoughts most of the time.

I came off the road in ’94 (or something like that) and I got back into town a couple of weeks before Christmas.  I was staying next door at Aunt Elaine’s house and living in the upstairs apartment, where I’d been crashing in between gigs.

She’d gone out to bible study or sewing club or something that night, so I was home alone in the big house, downstairs in the kitchen making a batch of cookies.  I knew she’d want me to keep the airtight wood stove in the living room going, and because I really only knew how to make a hot fire even hotter, I stoked it up and got that baby cranking.

I should take a minute and ‘splain the difference between an Aunt Elaine fire and an Ernee fire.  My dad was the keeper of the flames.  Our stove at the house was anything but airtight or efficient, and it had two temperatures: one million degrees fahrenheit, or off.  There was no middle ground.  The stovepipe would glow cherry red and you know those little magnetic temperature gauges you stick on the stovepipe to tell the temperature?  We not only kept them pinned at all times, we melted two of them.  You know the fire was going good when it got so hot the thermometer slid down the pipe and landed with a metallic thunk on the stove top.

Aunt Elaine was of the notion that you could get a fire going by throwing some wet logs on top of a pile of magazines and put a match to it and it would be fine.  I know this because as a “favor” to Dad she’d pop down during the day and “feed the fire.”  I know I’m using a lot of quotations, but trust me, in lieu of a sarcasm font this will have to do.

From a ridiculously young age, Robin and I knew that you had to first, before anything else, open the damper.  You stir up the coals and use the poker to move the half-burned logs around to let the air get in and fuel the fire before adding more wood.  You add dry wood.  Wet or green wood gives a cooler, smoky fire.  Dry, seasoned wood gives a nice hot fire.  Close the door, give it a minute or two to let the chimney draw, and then close the damper.

Aunt Elaine would ignore the damper, open the stove, fill it with a bunch of wood and close the door again and leave.

We could have smoked a side of pork in our kitchen.   And while smoked ham is delicious, smoked clothing is not fun.  Smoked coats and jackets, hats and mittens, curtains, rugs, chairs…everything made of fabric reeked.

Eventually Aunt Elaine stopped “helping” and kept her own fires in her own way.

Now, I hated the damned airtight stove she had in her living room.  First of all, it was a behemoth of a thing and ugly as sin.  It jutted way out into the room and did nothing to heat the living room with its ten-foot ceilings, yet you couldn’t sit in the chair next to it without melting.

Add to that the fact that she never ran it hot but constantly low and smoldering just annoyed the crap out of me.

So the night I was left alone with the wood stove, I got some nice dry wood.  I opened the damper and stirred the coals until they glowed like Vulcan’s anus.  I stacked on the dry wood, layering it so that air could circulate around the logs and let them catch before closing it up.  I don’t ‘spect a Boy Scout could have done no better.

The house smelled like fresh cookies and it was as snug and warm as that old house has ever been.

I was taking a sheet of cookies out of the oven when my dad came in.  “You know you got a hell of a chimney fire going in there?”

Um, NO.

You see this chimney fire? This one is a PUSSY compared to the one I had going.

We went outside and looked and the top of the chimney looked like a friggin’ Roman candle.  It was white-hot in the center and there were sparks shooting out of it.

Goddamn fire never made a peep.  Not a sound.

Had Sparky the Fire Dog not put the fear of demon fire into my heart I might have thought it was pretty cool.  Maybe even took a picture.

The other thing I learned from growing up in New England and heating with wood is that chimney fires are common and most folks generally don’t freak out about them.  In fact, most old Yankees will tell you the worst part of a chimney fire is that the fire department will put it out by putting a truckload of water down your chimney and flood your living room.

Dad and I calmly went back in to investigate, and I’m sure at that point we were both more scared of incurring Aunt Elaine’s wrath if the fire department flooded her living room than we were of the fire.

We went up to the third floor and you could vaguely smell smoke but you couldn’t see it at all, so we went down to the second floor into my bedroom.  On the wall beside my bed you could see a small, brown patch on the wallpaper.  I’d seen the opening of Bonanza enough times to know that it meant there was fire on the other side of my wall.

Ground zero. That pink bit of fiberglass insulation in the chimney is where there was a capped opening for a wood stove to attach. It caused the wall to catch fire. The picture was taken where my bed was.

Dad did too, so he took the trashcan from the bathroom, filled it with water, and splashed it on the brown spot.  Then he told me to go call the fire department.

You see, he didn’t put out the fire.  He put a hole in the wall that allowed air to get to the smoldering, super-hot fire that was burning on the other side.

Back in the days before building codes, you would build yourself a nice, brick chimney.  You could put as many stoves or fireplaces on that bad boy you wanted, so there was no reason to hold back.  And there was no need to waste space when it came to construction, either.  Just put those 2 x 4’s right up next to the chimney when you frame the house.

What happens is over the course of a hundred years, the mortar between the bricks loosens and cracks with age, allowing heat to seep out of the chimney, especially around these things called “thimbles,” which are holes in the chimney where you would hook up a wood stove.  If you’re not using them at present, you put a metal cap over them that is similar to a pie plate.  The wooden boards that nestle snugly up against the chimney get really, really dry.  When you constantly burn low, smoky fires, this stuff called creosote builds up inside the chimney.  It’s very flammable.

So you get a hot fire going in the stove.  The chimney gets superheated and the creosote stuck inside the chimney ignites.  The fire, usually contained many feet below in the stove is now right inside the cracked, brick chimney and is super-heating the really, really dry timbers of the house frame.  They start to smolder.  They just need a bit of air and

The third floor. They tore down most of the plaster to get at the fire that was inside the walls.


You got a house fire.

Which is what we got.

Now, I didn’t manage to actually burn the house to the ground, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.

I didn’t have to stop, drop, or roll.

I didn’t have to stay low to avoid the thick, choking smoke.

I didn’t have to jump from a second story window.

I did have to stand in the snow in the driveway and watch firefighters from five towns calmly and efficiently douse the flames in a very big house while sparing the bulk of our family’s belongings from the smoke, water and fire.

If you burn wood, for the love of all things holy, please have the sweep 'round to clean your chimney twice a year. I promise they won't break into song and dance and bad Cockney accents on your roof. That costs extra.


Sparky the Fire Dog scared me shitless, because he left something out of his coloring books.  Sparky was there to teach us how to avoid creating fires and what to do when confronted with any size or type of fire, and that’s where it ended.  The nice firefighter with the big mustache who came in to hand out the books and encourage us to Learn Not to Burn came and went and I never gave him another thought.

Fire is still the boogeyman of my nightmares.  But now, having seen the nice firefighter with the big mustache put on his big sooty coat and his shiny helmet and walk right into my house with a hose and make that fire his bitch, and knowing that there will always be men and women ready to do that at a moment’s notice, I sleep better.  I’m less scared.

Of course it also helps that I can see the fire station from my front yard, and you should know I’m never moving.



1. Kristin - March 2, 2011

After the fire safety presentations (which also scared the bejeezus out of me), I would go home and beg my parents to invest in rope ladders for every bedroom so that we could climb out in case of fire.

2. bezzie - March 2, 2011

I’d seen the opening of Bonanza enough times to know that it meant there was fire on the other side of my wall.

Holy hell, this is what had me stop, dropping and rolling on the floor with laughter!

My mom bought some of those window ladders. Let me tell you what a crock those are. They never hooked to the windowsill right. Death by smoke or fire or by blunt force head trauma falling out the window using those “ladders?” Hmmm…..

3. Pippa Posey Peanut Butter Pants - March 3, 2011

Loved this installment. I remember that chimney fire quite well…Christ niblets I’m grateful you weren’t sleeping at the time.

BTW…what the hell happened to Smokey the Damn Bear? When the hell did they replace him with the stupid looking Dalmation? Apparently I’m way behind on fire prevention updates.

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