The Great Fire of ’09

Let’s refer to this incident as The Great Fire of ’09. Perhaps that sounds a little dramatic, given that the most damage done was to my poor lampshade (below), the ceiling (which I haven’t been able to properly clean) and Baylor’s paws, which became black with soot almost instantly. However, I’m hoping that by referring to this relatively small blaze as the “Great Fire” I will consequently be spared similar incidents in the future. Of course, probably a little more attentive caution exerted on my part would contribute to my personal safety as well.

So here’s what happened: on a dry but gray Sunday afternoon last week, I was attempting to return to a semblance of normalcy after the holidays by cleaning, organizing and preparing for the week ahead. With the ubiquitous laundry mostly put away and an evening ahead in which to relax, I lit a few candles, including a lovely homemade beeswax taper given to me by a coworker. This was my first mistake, as I generally don’t like to light tapers to begin with (too easy to knock over and start fires, as well as often drippy and waxy). My second mistake was in not trimming the wick quite enough. And my third mistake was in placing the taper several inches from my favorite kitchen lamp, which ought to have been far enough away, but for the lack of wick trimming. So, taper burning merrily, I turned away for a short time – probably 30 seconds – and suddenly began to smell smoke.

My first thought was that the taper was just burning more pungently than my other candles, and as I turned around to check on it, I discovered that both the top of the taper and my lamp were engulfed in flames! Not wanting to electrocute myself, I attempted to unplug the lamp – and unplugged the computer in my panic instead. Running around into the kitchen, I managed to yank the lamp cord out of the wall, drop all the burning items into the sink and attempted to douse the fire with water. By this time, the ceiling of the whole apartment had filled with roiling black smoke, the fire alarm was beeping incessantly, the dog had retreated tail between legs to the bathroom and the fire was still burning, and in fact, getting larger. Frantically looking for a towel to pat the fire out with (ha), I continued running water over the lamp, which finally succumbed to the cool wetness and died.

My place was still filled with smoke (and I was more terrified of the fire department showing up and getting in trouble than my own personal safety) so I ran to open the windows, turned on my floor fan full bore and began madly waving a towel around to get the smoke out. I managed to hit the reset button on the fire alarm, and thankfully, avoided the wrath of of those more fire-savvy men (though truthfully, it was a little disappointing – I mean, what girl doesn’t want the fire department to show up?).

All in all, the whole episode lasted about 5 minutes, start to finish.

Here, the blackened remains of my faithful lamp, which provided warm light in 6 apartments across 3 states 1999 – 2009:

The most alarming part was simply how quickly it all happened – even in my 720 square foot studio, had I been even in the shower at the time, it could have been SO much worse. I laughed about it immediately after (with shaky relief) but fully recognize how fortunate I am. What I think happened was that the taper’s wick simply burned much too quickly, causing a large flame that somehow caught the lamp next to it (which, let’s face it, after almost 10 years of travels can’t possibly have been particularly flame-retardant). This incident made me truly appreciate and respect the power of fire – and caused me to think twice about the candles I choose to light in the future.

So, my “relaxing” evening was spent cleaning the soot that fell over everything, and comforting the dog, who refused to come out of the bathroom for several hours. However, at the end of the day, if that’s the worst that happened…well, I am very fortunate indeed.

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