We recently received this email from a reader and have been thinking about it pretty much ever since. So we thought we’d share it in the hope that Melanie’s story will help others out there who may have gone through the same experience and people like us who probably don’t know a thing about being prepared for something of this magnitude. Here’s a photo that Melanie sent to us.
Here’s her letter:
I’ve been stalking following your blog for just over a year thanks to making an offer on a short sale home in September of 2009. It was our dream and forever home. We spent the first two months washing, priming, and painting every single wall and ceiling. We replaced every hinge, door knob, light fixture, window treatment, and put in beautiful hardwood floors on both main levels and the stairs. You name it, we most likely did it.
Sadly, on Thursday January 6th, just before 6am I woke to the sound of two second story windows shattering followed by bright lights. I peeked into our guest bedroom and flames had just begun to enter, the smoke detectors went off seconds later. My husband, our 2.5 year old son, and I escaped safely with just the clothes on our backs. We had no shoes, socks, coats, or hats in subfreezing temps. Just each other and the love of our neighbors, friends, and families. It was quickly determined to be accidental, but we lost it all including my car. Our 2.5 story 2,000+ square foot home, plus in-law suite burned to the ground very quickly (one estimate was 30-60 minutes). Within hours we also learned of the love from acquaintances and strangers in our community and beyond.
We are very lucky to have each other and our lives- but our home, and all of the hard work and DIY projects we had done were gone so very quickly. We’ve already spent five hours documenting the structure of the house, and now begins the grueling task of itemizing each and every personal belonging. We’ve learned some of the “what would we do differently” as a result of this fire, that I’m hoping you consider for yourselves and might share with your readers:
- Subscribe to an online data backup service (my external back up drive sat right next to my laptop in my office)
- Keep passports in a safe deposit box
- Take pictures of each room initially and update them as improvements are made (storing them somewhere offsite – like Flickr)
- Take pictures and keep hyperlinks of all expensive purchases, including jewelry
- Hire an architect (my dad in our case) or use floorplanner.com to document each floor layout along with precise wall/ceiling measurements, each outlet, light switch, crown molding, other trim, type of flooring, any unique items to structure of property
- Put phones in a consistent place each night
- Get fire ladders for any second floor bedrooms
- Scan each photo and receipt, again keeping them offsite, or on an online data backup service
- Do not be frugal with homeowner’s insurance. Spend the extra $50 per year for the most coverage
Thank you for reading this and passing it along to your readers. -Melanie
Below is actual video of Melanie’s house. We can’t even imagine what she has been through:
We also got an email from a reader named Robin a while back. Her house nearly burned down at 2am on a Saturday morning. She and her family were thankfully able to get out safely and their home should be livable again in about three months. She also shared what she learned, so that we (and all of you) might be able to learn from her experience:
- Toasters aren’t the only appliances that burn. The source of Robin’s fire surprised us: her dishwasher. Her family was in the habit of starting the dishwasher as they headed off to bed – something John and I used to do as well – and it malfunctioned and sparked the fire. She sent us this photo to drive home the point. Along with reminding us to avoid running appliances overnight or when we’re out, Robin taught us that sending in the warranty card on all electronics is a must, since it’s the best way to ensure that you’ll get notified if there’s a defect or a recall.
- Robin also taught us that if your home has hard-wired detectors, be sure to have battery-powered ones as well. That way you have a back-up alarm in case of a power outage (which often happens during a fire). And remember to check the batteries twice a year. People often suggest doing it when you change the clock for daylight savings in the spring and fall as an easy way to remember. If you have children, consider installing a Talking Smoke Alarm in their room. Robin learned that studies show that kids under 17 often don’t respond to a traditional alarm, but they do respond to their parents’ voices. So these talking versions allow you to record a message that could even include instructions or comforting words.
- Robin learned first hand that despite living in her house for over two decades, the panic of a fire makes it easy to lose your bearings and become disoriented – especially if you’ve got smoke to deal with. Which is why she recommends figuring out at least two ways you can get yourself and others out of your house (in case one is blocked) and, if you have a second or third level, make sure at least one doesn’t rely on a stairwell (fire and smoke love traveling up stairs). Then practice your plan until it’s second nature.
Robin’s tip about the talking smoke alarm actually reminded us of a something my sister Emily learned while teaching fire safety to her kids. Emily decided to have a fire drill at home, and after talking through the route, reminding them to stay low, and pointing out that it might be hot and filled with smoke the kids were given the “Ready, set, go-go-go!” Olivia, who was about seven at the time, froze in place and started crying because the scenario was so scary. It was a huge wake up call to all of us because if this was her reaction during a drill, just imagine what she’d do if the house really were dark, hot, and smoky. As scared as Olivia was, Emily was grateful that she had a chance to talk her through it, put in some practice time, and improve her reaction response.
Thanks so much for Melanie and Robin for sharing their stories and their tips with us. We can’t even begin to imagine what it would feel like to be in their shoes, but we’re so glad to hear that their families were unharmed and that everyone from their friends to their community has shown them some serious love and support. And speaking of love, we’re sending out lots of it- along with a huge thanks to both ladies for thoughtfully taking the time to share such an important message.
Julie Ball says
Excellent post! All of it is very “awakening” to me as we live in a house built in 1954 and are unsure how much wiring has been re-done; minus the wiring we KNOW we have re-done. Very good information; albeit very sad that Melanie and Robin had to experience what they did:(
Thank you for this post. One of our smoke detectors (hard wired with battery backup) malfunctioned and while we very happy to get the call from the service immediately we were not happy to realize that our 4 year old slept through the whole thing. And that alarm was going off for a long time and we were running around yelling over it.
Brooke Buckingham says
Good reminder! Thank you for sharing!
karen @ our slo house says
Thanks for posting this. It makes it all very REAL.
I totally used to run the dishwasher at night — never thought that was a problem! : (
[email protected] says
Wow! Thank you for posting this. There is a lot here that I need to think about and incorporate into our home and our record keeping.
Married In Chicago says
What an important post! This happened to my husbands family when he was young and they lost everything. It is such a traumatic experience and I know it still effects him to this day. My heart goes out to those families.
Thank you for the informative post. My heart goes out to Melanie and Robin.
Thank you for a powerful post and things you sometimes overlook. We always run our dishwasher during the night. I’ve sent the link to hubby as well. Prayers are with Melanie and Robin’s families.
What a terrible loss for Melanie and Robin.
My family’s home burned when I was 6 years old. It’s something I’ve never forgotten. My heart still skips a beat when I hear the fire trucks go out, because I always fear it’s my house.
Great advice and information in this post. I’m going to print it out and implement some of it.
This post is really close to my heart as well. My husband and I built a house last year that replaced a 1960s house that had been destroyed by fire (before we bought it). The situation presented a wonderful opportunity for us to build in our ideal neighborhood, but we never forget the horrific circumstances that gave us that opportunity: http://greenhousegoodlife.blogspot.com/2010/06/one-year-later.html
Thanks for taking the time to share this- for most of us, this is a feared worst-case scenario. My heart goes out to that family and others who have been affected by such a terrible event.
It’s good to take time to remind ourselves that this CAN happen.
This post gave me the chills. My husband and I just bought our first house in the town where Melanie lives, a few miles from her house. Early in the morning of 1/6, my brother-in-law called us to make sure we were ok, he didn’t remember our address and had just seen the house fire on the news.
A house fire is my worst fear. Thank you for this post, fire preparation is so important.
So glad that Melanie and Robin escaped safely…
Thank you for posting this; it’s a wake up call for all of us. We’ve lived in this house for 30 years, with a hard wired smoke alarm, Definitley going to get some battery operated ones.
Melanie’s house is in the town I grew up in and where my parents currently live. I remember hearing about this story and was just devastated, especially since the couple had put so much time and effort (and money!) into the renovations.
Thank you for posting this story!
Snickrsnack Katie says
This is so scary… Fires are one thing that I am absolutely petrified of and am always very conscientious about. I definitely like a lot of the tips that were given here. I have often thought about how it is important to back up data somewhere other than my external hard drive. Good tip!
What do they mean that their in-law burned to the ground? I am hoping this a code word for something else and not their real in-law. I guess I don’t know some sort of home lingo?
I think they mean in-law suite, which is a separate bedroom area (sometimes above a garage).
Snickrsnack Katie says
Okay, glad to know that. I have never heard of an area of a house referred to as an “in-law” so I guess I just learned something new! :)
melarse (Melanie) says
Our in-law suite was in the basement. It was like an apartment, complete with a main living room, bedroom, kitchen, full bath and laundry.
I have thought about this a lot lately. I work for a software company and we are actually creating a Home Inventory software for all platforms (PC, Mac, smartphones, etc.) so you can easily document your belongings. You can take pictures on your phone of the items or even use a bar scanner app to scan new purchases and the info will appear and then it syncs with your desktop or with our secure server so it is stored offsite.
We are always welcome to suggestions from potiential users of features they would like to see to make this an easy process (even though I don’t think documenting every item in your home will ever be “easy”). I see a future fab freebie giveaway!
Wow – this is so eerie. My best friend’s house just caught on fire last Thursday morning. The culprit? The dryer. House was not completely burned down but still the house has to be gutted due to the fire/smoke damage. Luckily they (friend, her husband & two kids) are “ok” physically, but sadly two of their pets did not make it due to carbon monoxide poisoning from all the smoke.
Rebecca @ the lil house that could says
I have been terrified of my house burning down since I was in first grade and one of my classmates/neighbors house burned to the ground. I used to ride my bike past it and see all of their charred belongings on the lawn. This sent my 7 year old self into panic everynight before bed, checking things a million times to make sure they were off. I am still terrified of fire, even more now that I have my own house and pets.
Thanks for sharing and thanks to Robin for letting us know about the dishwasher. Being a paranoid person, I am always nervous to leave appliances running while not home, so it’s not something I normally do, but I had no clue a fire could actually start from the dishwasher. I will now be even more careful with my washer/dryer/dishwasher running at night. Thank goodness their families were able to get out safe!
Very important information for us all to remember! I just wanted to add something to that…Everyone should also have carbon monoxide detectors. I have a friend who had an old furnace and somehow something happened and started leaking carbon monoxide into the house. I forgot how they found it but they got out ok.
With all the snow we’ve been having everyone should be sure to check the outside vent if they have a gas dryer. If the vent gets blocked with snow, the gas can come back into the house. Simple safety precautions can save lives!
Friends at our church just had their lives saved a few weeks ago by a CO detector – the just hours after a repairman said the furnace would be fine and he’d get back to fix it in a week or so. The husband woke up to one of the 3 CO detectors going off – the other 2, which were closer to the furnace, never went off. Lesson – get more than one, and maybe different makes and models.
Is there anything the family needs that they are not already getting from their community? Is there a way for your readers to help?
So glad to hear that the family made it out safely!
Thanks so much for asking Nikki! We wondered the same thing. Hopefully Melanie and Robin will let us know if they’re in need of anything (understandably they’re quite busy, but we’re hoping they drop in to see how much their stories are appreciated).
I second that. What a heartbreaking story. I live within 30 minutes of Weymouth and I’d be happy to help however I can with clothes, housewares, etc. as they begin to rebuild.
melarse (Melanie) says
Thank you Nikki. We are in temporary housing for the time being, while we wait for demolition to occur and we can assess our rebuild options (hopefully on the same foundation). We have been set up with all of the bare necessities with help from our families, friends, community and beyond.
Update: To those wishing to help, Melanie isn’t actively seeking any handouts or donations, but her family has set up a fund for those who would like to help in some way. Here’s that info:
South Shore Savings Bank
The Arsenault Family Fund
650 Middle Street
Weymouth, MA 02189
I was wondering the same thing myself.
It is so wonderful of these people to be able to think of others at their worst moments. I hope that they will be able to recuperate as soon as possible.
And so nice of you to let us know. Sending well wishes your ways.
Thanks for the tips. We can use a lot of help in this area–never done a drill with the kids, no battery backup alarm, regularly leave appliances running when gone or at night. I will take this post to heart.
So sorry to Melanie & Robin.
Thank goodness no one was hurt. What amazing information that they passed on. You can never be too prepared.
Shelley Bohlman says
My good friend’s house burned down on Christmas Day while they were visiting their parents in the same area. A neigbor called and they ran over to watch the firefighters. Their dogs made it out the doggie door, but I guess cats panic and hid in closets. Thank goodness they had excellent insurance, and amazing family and friends. We’ll make sure they get back on their feet. But can you imagine? Christmas Day! Thanks for a touching post and a good reminder.
Julia M says
I remember growing up my parents had us do a fire drill, and my room was on the third floor! We broke out the fire escape ladder and practiced, practiced, practiced. It would be so scary to experience a real fire–especially now that I have a daughter myself. Thanks for this post!
My partner and I just bought a house and the first thing our parents hassled us about when we moved in was “do you have a flashing fire alarm? do you have a fire safe? do you have this and that to make sure you’re safe in case of an emergency?” As young homeowners you can think you’re invincible, but my partner Mark and I are both severely hard of hearing/deaf and wouldn’t be able to hear a fire alarm in the middle of the night, so we splurged and got a strobe light that’s both battery powered and can be hardwired too. A little on the expensive side, but it’s totally worth our lives and our safety. Thanks for this post! We will probably get going on some of those to-do items.
Thank you so much for sharing this. And thanks to those you sent in Melanie and Robin for sharing their experiences with you. I have never experienced a fire and can only hope and pray I never have to. These are excellent things to have in place and practice. Thank you so very much for the reminder. My prayers are with Melanie, Robin, and their families.
This is a really important message to get across. Thanks for sharing these stories with all of us!
Thank you for sharing these stories. I can’t imagine being in such a situation. Did Melanie say what caused their fire? I would have never thought the dishwasher in Robin’s fire would have been the cause.
Jennie M says
What a great post about something every homeowner needs to think about. My parents recently had a small fire in the second story of their home. Luckily, the smoke detectors did their job & everyone made it out safely–it was mostly smoke damage. We were surprised, however, just how much damage was done by even a small fire. They are having to have their entire second floor redone. It was amazing how much soot was left over absolutely everything.
Thanks for the much-need reminder.
Thanks for the post today. It makes you really think about what you need to do to ensure the safety of your family and important documents and the importance of documentation. We recently had smoke alarms installed in all our bedrooms, which is apparently new code for building in our area (NC) even though we had one in the hallway up and down.
Lori and Ethne says
Thank you for the reminders! Something to definately consider before it happens! Never on the top of the priority list, but it really should be!
Thinking of these families!
Lori and Ethne
thank you for sharing YHL and Melanie & Robin. So scary, so unbelievable. The part that really hit home was the dishwasher – we always run ours at night – but never again. Thanks for all the advice – i think you’ve woken us all up!
Jahan Thrower says
Thank you so much for this post. It has given me so much to think about and such wonderful advice to better protect my family.My thoughts and prayers are with M&R.
In my old house (which looked like the mirror image of your old-house, minus the drool-worthy enclosed carport and the fact I NEVER THOUGHT TO DRYWALL IN THAT STUPID DOORWAY TO THE THIRD BEDROOM. Ahem) I woke up one night not long after we moved in to my dog frantically barking. The fridge had been pushed to close to the wall, overheated, and ignited. Thanks to SuperDog’s action I was able to get my daughter out and extinguish the fire with a neighbor’s help but I’ve never been so scared. My heart goes out to those whose houses burned.
And check the appliances after you move in. I’m not sure if the inspector pushed against the wall, if it happened during the move-in, but I had no idea it was so dangerous.
It doesn’t sound like this was Tracie’s situation, but fires can also start from dust built up on the refrigerator coils, so it’s important to remove the panel below the door(s) and clean the coils from time to time.
Tamara @ Etcetorize says
Thank you so much for the information. I think there are alot of excellent suggestions that I’m going to follow through on. Sending good thoughts to Melanie and Robin~
The news here did a story about those fire alarms. They were saying that the ones that have voices are also the best for waking up children because they are such sound sleepers that the sound they make doesn’t wake them! But the sound of thier parents voice does!!! IT was INSANE to see them demonstrate it!!!
Happy to hear that everyone got out safely. I just added “Buy fire escape ladders” to my to do list. I guess we all assume we would have time to grab important documents etc but you really don’t. I’m sorry for their losses and appreciate them taking the time to pass on their story.
Great post – I lurk on your blog a lot, and this is one of your best. I’ll be getting over my procrastination and will get going on my inventory and offsite backups asap.
Shannon Frischknecht says
Wow, how sad. Thanks for posting this- I never run appliances when I am away from home but I run our dishwasher every night while we are sleeping!! No more thanks to your blog.
blog is the new black says
All great tips. Very scary, but smart jsut to be safe!
A few years ago while remodeling our bathroom, the hot moppers set off our fire alarm. I was so busy trying to get it turned off that I wasn’t paying attention to my four-year-old daughter. The noise of the alarm scared her so much that she hid in a closet. Later I learned from a fire fighter that this is not an uncommon response and you can imagine the problem that would cause in a real fire.
My heart truly goes out to Melanie and Robin, for I know firsthand the devastation that fires can cause. My cousin left a burning candle in front of an open window many years ago, and a strong breeze caused the blinds to knock the candle onto her bed. She was 16 at the time and stupidly tried to smother the flames with a pile of her clothing, which actually caused the flames to get bigger and burn down the entire second story of the house. They lived in an older home and had not checked the fire alarms in a very long time, so they unknowingly didn’t work and we did not believe her when she ran downstairs screaming that the house was on fire (she’s a prankster, so it’s hard to believe anything she says). The strong smell of smoke finally alerted us, and instant panic set in. It took us quite awhile to get everyone out of the house safely due to the sheer chaos, which is ironic since the local paper reported we “got out of the house quickly thanks to a predetermined escape plan”. My aunt, uncle, three cousins, and 4 additional dogs to our 2 lived with us for a 5 months while the house was cleaned and rebuilt. The incident really put things into perspective for my family’s own unpreparedness if a similar situation were to occur at our home, resulting in new fire alarms and creating one of those “predetermined escape plans” the Post Tribune apparently thought we had.
Tara @ Tara Being Tara says
Thank you for sharing this…. we have been talking about needing to do some of these things but keep putting them off. They are officially a priority for this weekend.
brandt @ New House on the Blog says
Great post. It’s good to get back to the basics, and realize that in the end, the most important thing isn’t that awesome bathroom reno, or the great coat of paint your just put on the walls, or that beautiful hardwood floor your put in. The most important thing is family and safety.
Great reminder, Sherry.
Cait @ Hernando House says
This makes my insides hurt. My heart goes out to both families! So sad (and terrifying).
Wow, I have to admit, I got a little teary-eyed. That is kind of a wake up call for me. I just noticed about a month ago that we don’t have any fire alarms up. We moved into our home about 8 months ago and I thought that it said in the home documents that there were working alarms including a carbon monoxide one but we never really went and looked. Time to get those up and running. So, sorry to Melanie and Robin but grateful that you and your families are ok and that you can share your stories and help others at the same time.
Great post! Thank you so much for the wake up call and reminder!
My Aunt’s house burnt down as well, from a dishwasher fire. She turned it on before she left for work, and it caught fire just after she left. Unfortunately for them, their kitchen is in the back of their house, so neighbors didn’t notice smoke until it had spread to the rest of the house. They lost everything: wedding photos, furniture, clothes, etc, along with two very dear pets.
They were able to rebuild, but it has stayed with me forever to NEVER run appliances while we’re not home. So sad and scary when things like this happen! I hope those two families take care, and let us readers know if they need any donations or anything!
Wow, thanks for sharing. Being a firefighter’s daughter I definitely had my share of practice fire drills, styling tools being taken away for being left on, and the first thing my dad bought me at college…a three story escape ladder.
Thoughts go out to Melanie and Robin. I can’t imagine going through something like that.