Fireside Chat

Here’s a scary story from my distant past that I submit for your consideration during Fire Prevention Week, which runs until this Saturday. It happened the summer I turned 15, when my mother and stepfather moved us from the friendly confines of the Niagara Region to one of the farthest locations on the other side of the province. That spot was a remote tourist resort that had been abandoned for the previous six summers, was accessible only by boat, and sat nestled on the end of a narrow peninsula in the middle of nowhere. Settle into your easy chair for the rest of this tale.

One evening near the end of summer, my parents had taken off for a business conference, leaving yours truly in charge, along with two employees: a gargantuan handyman named Oscar who, back in those days, would have been referred to as ‘slow,’ and our camp cook, an elderly woman called Rosie. The only other people in camp were four American guests at the resort, whose care was in our dubious hands.

Shortly after sunset, we were awakened by a large explosion. Oscar and I ran to the rear of the resort to find that the huge gas-powered generator that ran the entire camp had erupted in flames, setting the surrounding cabins and the neighbouring forest on fire.

Unfortunately, the area where the generator was located also happened to be the exact spot where they stored the resort’s fishing boats, our only means of getting off the peninsula. Oscar and I braved the heat and flames to save two boats and take them to the front of the camp where we managed to rescue Rosie and the four guests, taking them to safety.

The camp itself was mostly destroyed, our primary goal being to save human lives, not the buildings. However, when we returned to the camp several days later, it was sickening to see the devastation that had occurred.

There are a few instances in our lives when we get close to “seeing the light,” wondering if we’re going to survive and, when we do, reflecting back on those very short moments when we have to make a split second decision that, in the end, will either save us or kill us. Thankfully, that’s one of the only times I’ve had to personally endure such a situation. And, as you might imagine, I do my best to black out all those details from my memory.

I don’t believe that incident ever made me fear fire. My wife and I owned a wood stove for many years in our home and I spent countless hours lighting and stoking the blazes. I’ve always been a pretty decent fire builder and enjoy relaxing by a campfire as much as anybody. I went on a training exercise earlier this year with our local firefighters and stood close by as they did a controlled burn on a house.

What that inferno did, however, was give me a new respect for fire, a new understanding of its power and intensity, along with its overwhelming potential for destruction. And, since that time, it’s made me overly cautious in any situation where there’s a risk of fire.

This year’s theme for Fire Prevention Week is Kitchen Fires, which, perhaps surprisingly, are the number one cause of residential fires in Ontario. Think about the potential for disaster in that one little room. Unless you have a wood-burning stove, where else in your home are you going to have such a large concentration of flammable materials, high heat and large numbers of people in close proximity?

In reading through a list of the “don’ts” that the U.S. National Fire Protection Association listed to help people prevent kitchen fires, it’s amazing the number that people routinely ignore. Do you always stay in the room when frying, grilling or broiling food? Do you set a timer to remind yourself that you have items cooking? Do you keep the cooking area clear of combustibles? Do you have any idea what to do if there’s a fire in your microwave (the answer is turn it off immediately and leave the door closed)? Do you let your children within a metre of your cooking area? Do you drink responsibly when you’re cooking?

We read the tips about what we should do to prevent fires – but how often do we forget to follow those guidelines? Take a moment to look around your kitchen next time you cook and see how many hazards exist, ones that could destroy your home or take a life if a fire was to break out. If you’ve never experienced the destructive power of a fire firsthand, perhaps it’s hard to imagine how you’d react.

When I need some motivation to use caution in the kitchen, I reach back to when I was 15 years old and escaped a blazing inferno, considering myself lucky to be alive and being imbedded with a cautionary message that still burns within me today. What’s your motivation?