The Homeowners, Part II

By Shamus Posted Friday Mar 9, 2012

Filed under: Personal 73 comments

The fire alarm goes off. This is not some dinky smoke detector powered by a 9-volt. We have a booming, loudspeaker-driven alarm system designed to shake the rafters and let the neighbors know you’ve burned dinner again. I am not happy to be hearing this sound right now. I just quit the day and went to bed a few minutes ago.

Oldest daughter Rachel was cooking a snack just before I came in here, and I strongly suspect this alarm is merely the result of a teenager cooking while using the internet. She’s probably scorched her snack. My wife Heather, being the more responsible one, is already out of bed and throwing on clothes. Resigned, I follow her. Might as well give Rachel a stern talking to about this.

Rachel is not cooking. She finished a while ago, without incident. This smoke is real smoke and not singed starch. It’s coming from the living room. Heather and I meet there and try to find the source.

It smells like someone just pumped 1.21 gigawatts through an Apple IIe circuit board. This problem is electrical. There’s no apparent fire, but something made this smoke. There’s not a lot, and it seems to be dissipating quickly, but I would very much like to know what was burned to make this smoke, even if it’s no longer burning.

We check upstairs. We check the basement. Nothing. No smoke. No strange smell. The living room smoke is gone now, but the smell of fried electrical something is powerful. We unplug stuff and feel the walls. We sniff the outlets and devices, but none of them seem to be the source of the burning smell.

Well, there’s no fire, but there is a burning smell. I can’t ignore this. I guess it’s fire department time.


Just to be safe, Heather has the kids pile a few things into the car and pulls the car out of the garage. It’s very interesting to see what our family decides to take with them. Or rather, it’s interesting what we don’t take with us. Family pictures? We’re been using digital camera for about a decade. Documents? No, we do most transactions electronically and we can get copies of anything else. Valuables or heirlooms? Our family doesn’t really go in for that sort of thing. Nobody has any expensive jewelry. Cash? What cash? That’s what debit cards are for.

Everyone just grabs their favorite computer. Only my son, still ten years old, takes anything of sentimental value. He’s got a blanket and stuffed thing he wants to take. I don’t think he’s looked at either item in over a year, but the bond is still there. My “important object” is obviously my computer, which is annoyingly bulky and cumbersome. I don’t want to haul it around unless there’s real danger, or I may end up damaging it trying to save it. I split the difference and unplug it so I can run off with the case if things go sideways.

Heather takes the kids to the grandparents and I stand around in the yard in the freezing rain until the firetrucks begin to arrive. First I give the chief the tour. Then a couple of guys join us. Then a couple more. Then two more. Every time someone enters the house it’s the same reaction, “Wow! Something’s burned! Is it here? Where is it? Here? No… What the heck?” Then they walk around in circles, looking perplexed.

We check the kitchen. The furnace. The upstairs. The circuit breakers. The chimney. The smell is coming from right around the gas fireplace, but nobody can find the source, nothing looks burned, and nothing feels warm.

I’ve gradually gone from being nervous to annoyed. Whatever is going on, I’m pretty sure my house isn’t going to burn down tonight.

Finally one of the firemen finds the source. It’s a lamp. A tiny, unassuming lamp. It’s a simple little thing: A stick with a lightbulb on one end and a base on the other. We unplugged it as soon as we walked into the room when we first began looking for the source of the smoke. It shows no sign whatsoever of damage. No scorching. Nothing fried. It looks just as it always did, except that now it smells like a “Burned Electrical Circuits” brand air freshener. The smell is powerful and it’s not going away.

Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. The firemen fill out a little paper recording that we were all here and that nothing happened. I carry the lamp out to the trash can and retire it.

Looking back, I think the only other things I’d want to save from the fire are Heather’s paintings. However, there are a lot of them and they’re in glass frames. It would probably be impractical to stack them all up and haul them out of here during anything resembling a real emergency.

Ah well. that was an interesting adventure.


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73 thoughts on “The Homeowners, Part II

  1. Lalaland says:

    Fire alarms are literally life savers (not often that phrase is 100% accurate), your story reminds me I need to get some new ones and fit them to my new place. Glad to hear all are well.

  2. EwgB says:

    It’s interesting how google’s ad system spots what the article is about. Right now I’m seeing an ad for high temperature fabrics and fireblankets. Not something I would normally expect given the common theme of your site. :-)

    1. CheddarTheKnight says:

      It’s Project Wonderful, not Google Ads. At least I think so… he mentioned he tried out Project Wonderful a while ago at any rate.

      1. X2Eliah says:

        He tried it, and went back due to Project Wonderful being just a wonderful dream – not enough real-world income.

      2. Bubble181 says:

        And, unfortuntately, said he made about 10x as much from Google Ads as from PW, so he switched back. This one’s Google; you can see by hovering yourt cursor over the banner. Linkthrough is to

        Curse you, X2Ninja!

    2. CTrees! says:

      This being a work computer, I just get ads for vendors I use all the time. Well, one of them I use, one whose website I use for reference before going to other, superior (mostly less annoying) vendors. *shrug*

    3. SteveDJ says:

      And I get an ad for the store “Fireworks” – actually a neat place to shop!

    4. Michael says:

      I’ve got an ad for a nameless air freshener.

      “Remove odors from flood, smoke, mold, pets, food and tobacco.”

      I’d say if you’ve got smells of flood, smoke, or mold, chances are you’d want to get rid of the problem first.

      It also advertises it as an “Odor Free Ozone Generator.”

      Don’t want to burst your bubble, but Ozone is harmful to most animals’ respiratory systems. Wikipedia also informs me that it burns plantlife.

      Who, exactly, is this ad aimed at? Because I certainly can’t live without lungs.

      1. Nargon says:

        continuously offtopic: I have an ad that invites me to play some helicopter games. Come, fly away from burning stuff! :)

        1. MrWhales says:

          My adblocker keeps re-blocking ads on this site. So I’d love to see the ads and help generate that sweet $.01 per hundred hits(assumptions). But adblocker doesn’t want me to.

          If I plan to open a lot of pages while I am here I re-un-block ads here

    5. Australian here – I got an ad for a plumber in Sydney, a 10-hour drive away!

  3. Mersadeon says:

    I remember that whenever I was at my godmothers house, the firealarm would beep because the batteries were almost dead (this was happening almost every 2 months – I have never seen firealarms draining batteries that fast). Her daughter then simply would pop the batteries out, replacing them maybe a month later. And as a kid, I was SO afraid we would all die in a fire.
    Fun times. ^^

    Anyway, It’s interesting to see how the “electronic revolution” changed what you would take with you. Almost all of your family just carries the computer out. I think that would be the case in my home, too. Except for my mum. She would take paperwork.

  4. X2Eliah says:

    What I’d grab… Yeah, probably electronics. Maybe my document folder & passport too, though – but I have those on an easy-to-grab location, but beyond that, it’s definitely the two laptops, and then anything else with a wire / microchip I’d manage to grab.

    Actually, what time-amount is considered reasonable for grab-and-run? If I get.. well, 90 seconds, I’d have enough time to grab everything I want + a sack to throw it all in. If it’s more like 5 seconds.. well… Yeah, no.

    EDIT: Just want to say.. this is not a good feeling to be thinking about such things. Idk why, just doesn’t seem right as a thought-piece subject.

    EDIT2: Hey Shamus.. browser just threw an XSS attempt warning coming from googleads. I’d look into the source more directly, but can’t find a way to filter noscript’s messages in firefox’s error console :|

    1. Raygereio says:

      “Actually, what time-amount is considered reasonable for grab-and-run?”
      0 seconds.
      I’m serious; have your essential stuff (car keys, wallet, ID, etc) within easy reach and placed in such a manner that you can quickly grab it without fumbling and go. Note that electronics shouldn’t fall under this catagory. You can live without your computer, living without being able to pay for things is more troublesome. If certain data is essential, have it ready on a USB stick.
      If you’re living together with people, frankly the above stuff is likely to be of secondary importance. Ensure the people under your care, kids, whatever, are safe first. With that taken care, then asses the situation and make a judgement call on whether or not you can go back for your essential stuff.

      Do not dilly dally worrying about photoalbums and what not. You do not need that in order to buy food, etc. In a crisis situation, it is not important no matter the emotional connection.

      Just want to say.. this is not a good feeling to be thinking about such things. Idk why, just doesn't seem right as a thought-piece subject.
      Rather simple really: normal people don’t want to imagine bad things happening. Especially not to that which they have an emotional connection to. You don’t want to imagine your house burning down and you really don´t want to imagine your wife or kids dying an agonizing death in fire.

      For me personally thinking about this sort thing – the “how bad can this get” and “what can we do to minimise damage” – is easy. I can shut down my emotional response to that and look at this sort of thing objectively and analytical. Not everyone can do that.

      1. JohnW says:

        My dad’s been a firefighter since before I was born, and he always says to get out of the house. Immediately. Fires have a tendency to get very deadly very much faster than you can imagine.

        1. IronCore says:

          This is very true. Just look up any house fire incident videos. You’ll see a small bit of smoke transform into a full blown entire room on fire situation in thirty seconds or less. Here’s a few examples by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

          1. MrWhales says:

            Well yeah when there is a giant dry tree in a small room the fire will soo take over the room, but stick around for the couch video, according to it, you have over two minutes before it will spread off the couch.

            While I’m not saying they happen quick, they do, you’ll likely have time to grab that backpack and that photo album and hike out. It does help to always be prepared though.

      2. Peter H. Coffin says:

        practicing thinking about it isn’t bad either. The more one does it, the less scary it becomes, and the faster you’ll be able to cope with things happening badly.

        It’s often good to have a “bug-out bag” ready too. One backpack per person with a change of clothes, a pair of shoes, spare ID and debit cards, trail mix and a couple of bottles of water that you change out twice a year, and (if you can afford it) a couple hundred dollars in cash. Nerds will want to keep (one of the) backup external hard drives in there as well. Keep that under your bed. Even if you have to flee the house naked, you’ll be able to grab that bag, and get dressed later.

        1. Jonathan says:


          Also, I have a fire extinguisher in every bedroom, the garage, and the kitchen. The one in the kitchen is located between the stove and the doorway, so that you move closer to an escape route to fight the fire, instead of farther from it.

      3. Soylent Dave says:

        Speaking as someone who has had to leave my burning home, you take NOTHING with you except what you are wearing and carrying at the instant you hear the word “FIRE!”

        You might want to take your possessions, but you don’t have time. Because your house is on fire.
        You might want to grab your wallet, car keys etc. – but you don’t have time to look for them. Because your house is on fire.

        The fire in my home got put out with only minor damage to one room and some of the things therein, but In the nightmare scenario where your house and everything in it burns to the ground – we’re all lucky enough to live in rich nations with rich, compassionate neighbours.

        All the stuff that’s important, you can get copies of or access to. If you’re made homeless by the fire, none of us live in a place where our families would be left out in the cold. It might end up complicated and messy, and you might have to call in some favours.

        But you can do that if you’re alive.

        1. Adeon says:

          I have a simple solution to the whole wallet/keys/etc issue. I always keep them in my pockets and when I go to sleep I leave my shorts/trousers on the floor next to my bed. If there’s a fire I can grab them on the way out the door which conveniently solves two problems in one (I have decent clothing and my wallet/keys).

    2. TSi says:

      I’m not sure i’d like to live like that… Makes me feel nervous and uncomfortable.

  5. Gamer says:

    Glad it was just a minor issue.

    As for the underlying point of the article is interesting. I wonder what I would take with me in a fire. I’d probably take my laptop or something. My PS3 and most other things can be replaced easily. My parents would have a harder time because they still have actual photos and paper documents.

    1. Meredith says:

      Important papers like that (and even a back-up hard drive) should go in a fireproof safe somewhere in the house. Then you don’t have to worry about them during the actual fire. I’m sure it’s not going to work perfectly in every situation, but it’s better than dying in a fire.

  6. Joush says:

    To echo again: Don’t take anything if you think there is a serious fire. The time you spend trying to grab things and (generally far more) time you spend in mental triage can get you killed. All it takes to kill you is a few lungfuls of smoke that won’t do more then make your prized possessions smell a little funny, so most of the time your stuff will be fine inside until the fire is controlled and put out, but you could die trying to pick what to take.

    A second point.. you didn’t mention it, but a tip any time you have an electrical burning smell but no clear source of fire. Go to the breaker box and turn off the power.

  7. evileeyore says:

    If I had time I’d pull my harddrive.

    Then I’d just have to juggle two cats and a pair of harddrives as I fled the burning house. I should probably get an external backup drive…

    1. Phoenix says:

      Lol I was thinking the same.

    2. Jarenth says:

      I’d assume your cats wouldn’t hang around fire to begin with.

  8. GiantRaven says:

    With a huge shelf of comic books I could never bear to leave behind, I’d be bloody terrible in a serious fire situation.

  9. Rayen says:

    I wouldn’t grab my computer surprisingly. I’d actually grab my collection of novels. They’re not exactly thick and they’re all paperback, i have about 15 of them, i can actually stack them up and carry them pretty quick. other than that it’s 3 kids, a cat, and our fish, Mr. Beta.

    Also however much being a homeowner is annoying in this situation, it can be worse. When living in a multiple family structure (ie Apartments, Condos) it is perfectly possible to have the smell of something burning or worse having a fire started hat has nothing to do with your particular living space. We had a fire at our complex a few months back. I live on one end of the building the other end of the building turned into a conflagration. The fire department got it under control before it became a danger to us but it ate three apartments before it was done and we smelled the smoke at our place.

    At least you knew it was your house and didn’t have to worry about the stupidity of others.

  10. SolkaTruesilver says:

    And now, Mister Young, you suffered the full wrath of my vengence! My 5-year plan to get back at the sligh you made me suffer, the smuggling of the bad light bulb… ALL OF IT HAS BEEN WORTH IT!!

    You have been mildly inconvenienced for a night! YES!!!!! MWAHAHAHAHAH!!

  11. JPH says:

    You spelled jigowatts wrong.

    1. Shamus says:

      I wondered that when I typed it. Did Spielberg’s script have “gigawatts”, and that was Lloyd’s comical reading of it, or did the script really say “jigawatts!”

      1. anaphysik says:

        Spielberg… *shakes head* he was the producer. Pretty sure Zemeckis did writing as well as directing.

        Anyway, at the time it was still considered moderately acceptable to use the soft g (i.e., ‘dÊ’’ in IPA) for gigawatts. Hard-g-only is more modern (though since it’s a Greek root, more accurate; and of course, being a wee tyke, it’s the only pronunciation I grew up with (outside the rare reference to BttF, of course)).

        EDIT: Then again, one script has it as “1.21 jigowatts” as the above poster put it, so…

      2. Ben says:

        Giga’s root is the same as the word Giant, therefore it’s supposed to have the same G sound… or at least that’s the reasoning I’ve heard. The only person I’ve ever heard it from is a physicist… so I always took that to be a really subtle way of indicating just how geeky Doc was :)

        1. Chargone says:

          of course, that root has it’s G pronounced as hard, not soft. his logic actually tells you we pronounce ‘Giant’ wrong, not anything about how to pronounce ‘giga’. :D

          1. MatthewH says:

            And gerrymander should be pronounced Gary-Mander (as it is named after Gerry). These battles were lost long ago.

        2. Smejki says:

          U r wrong. it is gigant.

  12. Sagretti says:

    Reminds me of a school function I attended as a child. Someone burned something innocuous, I think it was popcorn, and set off the fire alarms.

    You know what happens when a school’s fire alarm goes off? Every freaking fire truck in the tri-county area shows up, from little pick-ups to huge ladder trucks. They were arriving so fast that some embarrassed adults had to explain the situation repeatedly before they stopped coming, and the school ended up looking like the scene of some horrible disaster with the disaster forgetting to show up.

    1. Robert says:

      If your laws are like our’s, the fire department doesn’t have a choice: once the smoke alarm is triggered they have to respond.

      At my first school we had some students who had a contest to see who could cause the most fire evacuations (not fun at -20) “” we had to respond to each one until the little buggers were caught. Cost us a goodly chunk of the budget in false callout fees, which the school district tried to recover from the parents…

  13. Irridium says:

    Hm… this has gotten me to think of what I would take with me.

    First thing I’d get is the pillow my grandma knitted for me when I was little, then try to get the cats, or at least get them outside, then probably pile all my old PS1 games into the pillowcase.

    Might try to get my computer as well. Pretty heavy, but it can be somewhat easily disconnected if really needed.

  14. squishydish says:

    That reminds me, the time changes this weekend, so I need to change the batteries in my smoke alarm and CO detector.

  15. JohnW says:

    We lost the neutral on our house main feed a few years ago. I think a branch fell on it and knocked it loose. So we had 480, 481, whatever it takes coming in. Burned out the heater motor, TV, and smoke billowed out of every single surge protector. I could not figure out where the smoke and the burning smell were coming from, either. It probably took me an hour to zero in on the surge protectors.

    I guess they do work, though, as nothing (besides the TV) was damaged.

  16. Factoid says:

    Do you have any electrical circuit testing equipment? You don’t need anything major. For $5-10 you can get a device that plugs into an outlet and lights up if you have a ground or neutral fault. For $20 you can get a little kit that has one of those outlet testers, a cheap voltage tester and a little pen wand that can tell you if an electrical outlet is live when you touch it.

    I would highly recommend doing a ground fault test on the outlet that lamp was on. 99% of the time it’s not the outlet, but if it is, you can go to the hardware store and buy a replacement for less than 5 dollars. Great for peace of mind.

  17. Actually, Shamus, this process doesn’t sound so bad to me and encourages me to go out and do it myself. I’ve painstakingly reformatted books I’ve written manually before. Not a big deal if you plan ahead.

    What is a big deal to me is the MARKETING aspect, but I figure I can worry about that when I actually finish WRITING THE DARN BOOK. I know a lot of people online who have decent mid-sized blogs. Maybe I can get em to plug for me.

    1. Eeeeek wrong post. Sorry.

      1. Teldurn says:

        I lol’d. :)

      2. SteveDJ says:

        Yea, the first line had me thinking “…what, you went out and had a fire drill…??”

        Then you started talking about books, and I’m thinking “…what, you would rescue some books…??”

        Definitely a good laugh from me :)

  18. RCN says:

    Good to know it was nothing of importance.

    During a vacation at my grandma’s house in the northern end of my country, one night I was awoken by my hysterical mother in the middle of the night. It turns out one of the many, many candles my grandmother keeps lit for various assorted saints burned a curtain down and, if no-one had awoken to the smell (I did to the screaming), it could have taken the whole house down. Thankfully, it was taken care of before the fire department got there, but that night was scary.

    It turns out the curtain was some sort of family heirloom as well. I remember it being fugly as all hell though.

  19. Chargone says:

    on my way out i’d grab my cellphone, wallet, and (depending what i’m wearing at the time) dressing gown. they’re all in a straight line between my bed and my window (though that does ignore the need to open a draw to get the wallet and the occasion when someone has ‘tidied’ so my dressing gown is actually in the wardrobe rather than on a chair…)

    everything else… well, most of it the insurance would cover replacing, and the irreplaceable things are so numerous (out of print books/games etc, for the most part) that there’s no way to get them all out Anyway.

    that said, the windows in this house are terribly designed as emergency exits go. getting onto the windowsill is awkward (it’s at about mid-thigh height) it’s narrow and there’s nothing to brace yourself against properly, then the part that Opens doesn’t even come all the way down to the windowsill, so you have to step over another pane(that’s almost at knee height when on the windowsill) … making the gap small enough that i have to bend over to not hit my head even when the window is opened all the way out (it’s hinged at the top), oh, but not too far or you don’t fit through the width of the window… have fun not falling over… then the outside windowsill is Also narrow, and Sloped… did i mention the window catches are these wonderful upwards facing Spikes if you don’t remember to flip them back down before trying to clime out and slip and hit your head against them? also, the wall on the house turns 90 degrees just past the window in one direction, so you have no room to maneuver on the outside either.

    it’s not the worst one in the house (toilet and shower rooms… you could get out the toilet one, but that would immediately be followed by taking a header onto concrete… and the shower window… well, the same, but harder to get up to in the first place).

    gets better, of course. when we first moved in the window in this room had a ‘safety lock’ on it. … a piece of metal, on the side Without a wall (you know, the space your body’s going to end up in going out it?) which Prevented the Window Opening Properly. i have no idea WHY, as no other room in the house had this. needless to say it was removed in short order as it prevented the window opening far enough for a person to get out.

    stupid part is, the external walls on this house actually have far more glass than i consider reasonable… and then the Openable sections are as small and awkward as possible.

    (the living room windows are impossible to get out of. most are too narrow, and all of them open somewhere around chest height…. and the windowsill is at floor level. fortunately, it has two exits. one into the kitchen, the other through a large, double sliding door, into … a second living room, i guess, which has both a large sliding door to outside, and probably the easiest window in the whole house to get out of. )

    so… yeah… my home is a firetrap. and then my room is full of wooden furniture, paper books, and electronics. … … … …

    Feeling SO safe right now <_<

  20. Alex says:

    “That awkard moment when you realize you and your roommates have the perfect zombie apocalypse scenario planned out, but no fire escape plan.”

    1. Strangeite says:

      I guarantee you are not alone.

      1. Audacity says:

        Then there are those of us who have the same the plan for both those scenarios…

        1. Jarenth says:

          Run around screaming in terror?

          1. Sumanai says:

            Hasn’t failed me yet.

  21. Strangeite says:

    This has given me the kick in the pants I need to finish a plan I have been thinking about for a while. Currently, all of my important computers are backed up completely to a centralized and partitioned hard drive (all Macs and all using Time Machine), unfortunately, if the house burnt to the ground, the hard drive would go with it.

    I have been toying with the idea of either stationing the backup hard drive either in the detached garage and running ethernet to it there OR storing it at my neighbors house and having it backup over my wifi network (the network reaches that far).

    Anybody have any advice on creating a poor man’s off-site back-up solution?

    1. Robert says:

      Neighbour, if they’re agreeable and further away. Modern houses can go up quickly and burn quite hot, so spreading to a close outbuilding is possible.

      Or, if you can afford it, both options.

  22. SteveDJ says:

    Here’s my scary fire incident, involving — candles.

    My wife likes to burn candles in the kitchen to eliminate other food odors (like onions, bacon…). So she had a small candle burning — the candle was in a glass votive thing, and that was held up by a wire holder (wire made a circle loop at the top, holding the glass votive which held the candle), and the wire went down to the base, which was just another circle loop of same wire.

    So anyway, she left this candle burning – unattended. As it got near the end, the heat near the base of that glass votive (which apparently had an unseen flaw) caused it to shatter. The remains of the candle managed to fall directly down, and land within that circle of wire making up the base. Not sure how it did it, but it continued to burn after that ‘fall’. So this candle is now burning directly on the window sill — the WOOD window sill.

    Some time later, the candle managed to burn itself out (the wire loop contained the last of the wax). It wasn’t until turning lights out for the night that I saw it — I very nice BURN on the window sill, contained within the wire base.

    We never saw it happening, and that is the scary part — all we have for evidence it this burn mark. I know for certain that if that candle had landed differently, or bounced outside of the wire loop, that the entire window sill would have just caught fire completely… :-(

    We haven’t done anything with that burn mark – it remains as a reminder to keep an eye on our burning candles! I advise everyone to do the same – don’t leave them unattended, even if they are in a holder.

  23. xXDarkWolfXx says:

    Im glad that my room has a window leading outside off of it because if our house were to go up im not sure WHAT id take, my massive collection of books, my games, my collection of various dragon statues and other collectibles, and my laptop are all possibilities. Id probably end up being the one doing 5 trips in and out to get everything he wants to save.

    1. Chargone says:

      if you have to use the word ‘massive’ or ‘collection’ you’re not going to have time to get it and get out safely in the event of an actual dangerous fire situation, i think.

    2. Jarenth says:

      The problem with this proposition is that if you make five object-gathering trips into a burning building, there’s a near-100% chance you’re going to breathe in lethal amounts of smoke and die.

  24. RTBones says:

    The important thing is that everyone is OK – house and home OK too is a bonus.

  25. Josh says:

    My anecdote! I had one of those hard plastic vortex heaters running in my bedroom, and I fell asleep. I awoke to the most horrible smell ever. The heater’s fan had failed, allowing heat to build up and begin to melt/burn the plastic housing.

    It hadn’t burst into flame or begun to melt into a puddle, but the stench of it forced me to open every window and door immediately, and leave them that way for hours, in the middle of the night, in wintertime.

    I don’t recall whether any fire alarm went off. But the smell was enough to rouse the dead. The moral of the story is: Yep, you really don’t want to leave a heater unattended. What did I grab? Just the heater! To heave it out into the snow.

  26. Soylent Dave says:

    When my house caught fire the smoke alarm, rather than opting for the traditional method of ‘beeping urgently’, melted.

    My mum came downstairs and noticed that the living room door was ablaze (because she’d put her ashtray in the bin behind the door and hadn’t stubbed a cig out properly…), shouted up to me (I was 12 or so), so I ambled downstairs – to be confronted with a wall of fire.

    I had to jump past the flames, shout at my mum to get out (she was heading to the kitchen to fill a bowl with water…) and then run down the street – in socks – to the phone box, because we didn’t have one in our house (this is a) in the past and b) we were poor)

    The firemen turned up within a minute or two, and were awesome at putting the fire out without further damaging our home – this mostly involved dragging burning stuff out into the garden and putting it out there (the water damage from the hose is almost as damaging to property as the fire is, so it was nice of them to avoid that)

    We had horribly charred walls and ceiling in our living room for quite a while after that, but we didn’t lose too much stuff (the door and the windows were replaced quickly enough, but we lost some books and a bookcase and so-on) – and nobody was hurt.

    So that was fun.

  27. jraama says:

    I had a similar situation about 6 months ago, but without any smoke, just the strong smell. In my case, the lamp was right next to the computer I was using. I thought for sure the computer was frying, so I turned it off and opened the case up, but could not find anything to explain the smell. I went so far as to start pulling each component out of the case and inspect it. When I reached for the lamp switch to turn it on high (it had two light settings) to better see the components, the switch burned my finger. After taking the lamp outside and allowing it to cool, I opened it up and found all of the wiring around the switch charred. I am still amazed that the lamp was working while apparently burning up on the inside. At least my computer was safe.

  28. asterismW says:

    I managed to set off the fire alarm in my dorm building in college. I had popped a couple of Poptarts in our old toaster and then left them while I helped my roommate with her online banking. I was just about to step out of her room when the fire alarm went off. We’d already had a fire drill that day, I was hungry, tired, and thus annoyed at what I thought was another stupid fire drill. I stepped out into the hall, which was full of smoke coming from our kitchen. While my roommates left the building, I went into the kitchen and was greeted by a six-inch flame coming from the toaster. I unplugged it and dumped water all over it to put out the fire (I was actually insulted by the number of people who asked if I unplugged the toaster first before dumping water on it). The Poptarts had gotten stuck in the toaster when it tried to eject them, and instead of shutting off (like modern toasters do), the toaster remained on, turning my dinner into charcoal.

    A week later, another girl set off the fire alarm with her flat iron, but my story was better.

    1. Chuck says:

      Yeah, I remember at the dorm, there was an oven in the second floor lounge, and it seemed like every week someone burned something in it, because if the monthly fire drills weren’t bad enough-they were scheduled, so if you remembered when they were you could leave beforehand-but the random waits were annoying.

      Especially once during exam week when the alarms went off. At 3:30 in the morning. Oh, and remember, this is one of those “alert the entire building there is an emergency” systems. Heck, the other dorms probably heard it.

      Fortunately there was never a real situation. Also we weren’t allowed toasters.

  29. delve says:

    May have been said before but losing part of one night’s good sleep is worth the peace of mind of knowing that your family can handle a serious emergency is fairly rapid order. Or anyway, that you’ve practiced it now and won’t be so panic-y before a real raging monster of a fire. Or, maybe you will. But you’ll know what to grab in your panic :)

  30. says:

    Some 15 years ago, our house almost caught fire when my mom left the kitchen with something cooking on the stove. She probably forgot it as someone came to visit, but remembered just in time to find one blazing HOT lunch. She put it out quickly by putting the lid on and depleting it’s oxygen source that way (good thinking) and fortunately nothing catched on fire.
    You DO NOT want to leave the kitchen unattended!

    Also, as I live near a transformer, our voltage was somewhat out of the specified power range (246V opposed to the standardized 230V) for some time, so every few months those energy-saving light bulbs blew up, in one event even my PSU of the PC burnt out with a flashbang.
    Thankfully, now the power is stabilized and we don’t have those power fluctuations any more.

    My friend had an hilarious monitor malfunction at a mini-LAN party at his house like ~6 years ago. His AOC 17″ CRT monitor flashed, something burnt out with smoke, and he immediately shut it off. After some 5 minutes, he turned it back on and it was working normally without a problem ever since (even today his parents use it on their PC).

  31. Angie says:

    That was actually a great outcome. Annoying, sure, but better than the obvious alternative. Another blog-reading friend of mine lost his house and all its contents to an electrical fire a couple of years ago. He and his wife and two kids were left with the stuff they had in their car; luckily they’d recently done a Disney World trip and still had stuff from that packed up. We did an online benefit to raise money for them to buy a new house, or at least get started, but much better not to need that sort of thing. :/

    I’m very glad it was just a lamp.


  32. Jarenth says:

    More anecdote time!

    I once lived in a house with an electrical stove (as opposed to a gas one). Annoyed with the general slow rate of heating, I put a pan on with some olive oil, turned the heat up all the way, then went into the living room to watch TV and promptly forgot all about it.

    Que forty-five minutes later. I remember my cooking and walk to the kitchen door. I had one of these kitchen doors with a small window in, and… well, the door was closed, and the window was white.

    You know what happens to olive oil when it’s super-heated? First, the liquid parts boil away; afterwards, you’re left with the solid residue touching the literally red-hot glowing pan. The result is smoke. Clouds and clouds of billowing white smoke.

    It wasn’t anywhere near as dangerous as black fire smoke, luckily, and I was able to resolve the matter by opening all the windows and taking the pan off the heater (and stupidly holding it in running water — I’m surprised it didn’t shatter). The apartment smelled like burned oil for weeks, though, and the pan was more or less ruined; burned olive oil leaves the most terrible sticky black residue everywhere. As if tar had learned to hate.

  33. luagha says:

    There’s a bunch of good information on the prepper sites for stuff like this, but one of the concepts I’ve really liked is to have three plans:

    1. I have to leave my house in one minute. What do I grab?

    This is a fire emergency, or certain types of earthquake, attack, and so on. You have time to put on clothes, grab one thing, get pets, get out of the house, and you won’t know when you will get back. People have already discussed a ‘bug-out bag’ but the great thing I read about was to take digital photographs of all birth certificates, drivers licenses, credit cards, bank statements, critical mortgage statements, insurance telephone numbers; reasonably recent photos of all members of the family, and store that all on a data stick. If you lose all the paperwork in your house, you have all the critical identifying numbers to get it back. That goes in your bug-out bag, along with warm layers of changes of clothes, and a month of everyone’s prescriptions.

    2. I have to leave my house in one hour. What do I grab?
    And this is the longer version where you have some time to pack. This is something you might do when a storm is coming, or when the television is ordering an evacualtion.

    3. I have to leave my house in twelve hours. What do I grab?
    And this is the longest version. You begin this plan when it LOOKS like you might have to evacuate… as in, the hurricane and the flood is coming, they don’t know if it will hit or not, the government hasn’t yet ‘made the call’… that’s the time to implement this plan.

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