Parenting

Family escape plan: How I survived a house fire

Last month, Today's Parent contributor Amy Valm survived a house fire — and has a new appreciation for the importance of a family escape plan.

Photo: Amy Valm

March 6 was like any other Wednesday. Most of the Monday blahs had been shaken away in the midst of the mid-week bustle, and there was that satisfying feeling of knowing the weekend was near. 

That morning, my boyfriend’s mom gave me my usual daily phone call. She talked about the weather, and the latest gossip from their lakefront Haliburton, Ontario home. Then she mentioned something I hadn’t really given much thought to — she asked me what our fire escape plan was. I kind of shook it off, telling her I didn’t know. She reminded me that when my boyfriend Shane was growing up, he had a rock by his window in case he had to get out. I assured her I’d find a rock and then went on with my day.

After dinner, Shane and I camped out in the living room, like we always did. He played video games, while I curled up in the armchair working away on my laptop. When we got ready for bed, I brought up the conversation I’d had with his mom. We laughed about it and reminisced on other stories of his well-intentioned, hovering “helicopter” mom

What felt like 10 minutes later (which was really three hours), I awoke to the doorbell being hit repeatedly and a constant, hard banging on my front door. Assuming the downstairs neighbours were partying and a drunk person was at the wrong door, I got up to tell them to stop. When I opened my bedroom door I noticed the smoke — thick, black and choking — funneling into the hall from the kitchen. 

It’s weird: You’d think in a critical situation, you might have natural survival instincts kick in. My instinct was to follow the smoke. Maybe it’s the fact that I love investigating and am constantly thirsty for information that made me want to find the source. Or maybe it was denial. Maybe I was just hoping there was a fire down the street that wasn’t affecting my home. I walked into the kitchen, the smoke pooling in around my ankles and rising as I moved closer. I opened the back door, the handle hot, and saw the attached balcony completely engulfed in flames. Quickly closing the door, I ran down the hall, telling my roommates to get up. Shane was completely passed out. I had to shake him out of his groggy state. We quickly grabbed a few articles of clothing, and our coats and shoes from the hall. We huddled across the street to watch and wait.

I thought I’d be more upset watching my house burn, and seeing the black smoke billow from the windows, decorating the sky with its thick dark plume. But I wasn’t sad, just neutral. My one roommate was very shaken up and crying, the other was angry. Shane stood really still beside me, looking up in awe and shock. I just stared at my still-intact patio lights and the firefighters who were risking their lives to make sure we were all safe. I think my calmness stemmed from knowing that everything that mattered was out of the house — everything with a heartbeat was close enough for me to touch. It felt more surreal seeing our house on CBC News than it did seeing it burn just 15 feet in front of me. 

Our smoke detector, for whatever reason, didn’t go off. We didn’t have an escape plan mapped out, or anything suitable to break our small bedroom window. We must have had some sort of saving grace looking out for us. I’m so thankful to our neighbours for pounding on our door to wake us up, and that the smoke didn’t keep us from escaping. 

The kindness that we were shown following the fire was beyond amazing: Offers of places to stay, meals, clothes, shampoo, housewares for our new homes, cash — and just the support and hugs. A neighbour offered us the clothes off his back. People that I’d barely even said hello to were extending so much to us. 

I find myself counting my blessings more. I feel a palpable peace and have so much gratitude for my life and everyone’s in our house — which consisted of six apartments. I often question why we were so fortunate. 

In the news there seems to be a lot of fires lately. A week after our fire, another house burnt down in Toronto. Two more buildings in my old neighbourhood caught fire. A well-known Toronto school trustee suffered life-threatening injuries in a house fire and most recently, four people died in a fire just outside of Newmarket, Ontario. 

Chalk it up to coincidence, bad luck, negligence or the new age theory of a “Monster Moon” — whatever the culprit, knowing fire safety and having a plan is your best defense.

Here are some tips to help protect your family:

Smoke detectors

It’s recommended to have a smoke detector on every floor of your home. Because smoke rises, the ceiling is the best place to put them. Be careful not to place them too close to windows, bathrooms or appliances. Make sure to follow the manufacturers instructions when installing. 

Replace smoke detectors that are more than 10 years old. Keep a record of how long you’ve had yours — years can fly by. 

You should change your smoke detector batteries at the same time as you change the clocks — in the fall and in the spring. If your smoke detector gives a warning beep because of a low battery, replace it immediately. It’s a good idea to have spare batteries on hand.  

Keeping your smoke detector free from dust and debris is also important. Lightly vacuum your smoke detector every six months. Ensure that electrical smoke detectors have the power shut off first. 

Get in the habit of testing your smoke detector every month. This can be done by pressing the test button. 

Escape plan 

Draw an escape route with your family detailing how everyone would get out in the event of a fire. Come up with two ways to vacate every room and pick a safe place for your family to meet outside. Practice the escape route regularly with everyone in your home. Plan to call 911 from the meeting spot. 

Preparation and awareness saves lives. To find out more information, search on your city or town’s website or call your local fire station.

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