Sunday, February 24, 2008

Burnt-out home serves as classroom


Scorched walls, seared furniture and soot-dusted belongings greeted hundreds of local residents as they stepped into the burnt-out interior of a Santa Barbara home during the weekend.
As an “Open Fire Safety House” put on by the County Fire Department, the home at 4511 Auhay Drive seemed to have a similar effect on many who toured its charred contents.

“Shocking,” said Mike McCurdy, a San Marcos High School student who visited the open house with his father. “A reality check.”
“It’s a real eye-opener,” said Kimberly Ford, a friend of the family displaced by the fire.
With safety and preparation as their selling point, a handful of firefighters led small groups through the smoke-blackened hallways and pointed out the impacts of a two-alarm blaze that took 18 firefighters about 30 minutes to knock down on February 12.
“It was like looking in some kind of exhibit in a museum,” said Ford’s son Austin. “Everything just seemed frozen.”
The fire started in the front bedroom, the result of ashes dumped from an incense burner into a trashcan. In another part of the house when the flames shot up the side of the wall and busted out a window, the lone occupant at the time didn’t realize anything was wrong until he walked toward the hallway and was met with intense heat and smoke.
“The attic was on fire before he called us,” County Fire Capt. Eli Iskow said.
Able to escape with his life, the resident watched as firefighters busted through the front door and started dousing the interior with water. Another crew climbed to the roof and started punching holes in the ceiling to allow heat and smoke to escape, stalling the steady march of flames through the attic.
As families stepped into the remains of the living room, firefighters displayed several warped smoke detectors on a toasted piano. Had any of them been operable, the damage would have been greatly reduced, Capt. Iskow said.
“It takes so little money and effort,” he said. “…Ten bucks for smoke detector and two dollars for a nine-volt battery and this wouldn’t have happened.”
Evidence of the family of five remained behind, their daily routine scattered among the singed bookshelves and charred beds. While flames never reached the living room, dining room or kitchen, blistering heat and heavy smoke left their touch. On the couch, a laundry basket had melted into a barely recognizable lump of plastic.
“I was surprised at how much damage just heat could do,” Ford said. “It was so much worse than I expected it to be. It’s so heartbreaking.”
Once flames tore through the bedroom window, crept up the wall, slipped through poorly designed venting and into the attic, the blaze had a free path to the rest of the house. To that end, keeping doors closed when possible is a good way to keep fire from spreading, Capt. Iskow said.
Stepping into a bedroom, he showed a closet door blistered by the heat — about 1,000 degrees at ceiling level in a non-burning room, he said. Pulling open the closet doors, however, revealed a rack of clothes relatively unscathed by flames.
“The house is perfectly graphic,” Capt. Iskow said. “There are so many good lessons to tell.”
In the living room, firefighters pointed out a bookshelf, its contents slowly transitioning from a seared black at the top shelf to a virtually unmarred bottom shelf. Stay low in smoke, they said.
“You really know how much it matters when you see the damage,” McCurdy said.
Firefighters reiterated safety messages on signs throughout the house, urging visitors to develop a family escape plan and to check smoke detector batteries regularly.
“I think most of our smoke detectors are working,” Ford said. “I’ll go home and make sure now.”
Fire officials recommended keeping at least one fire extinguisher on hand and changing smoke detector batteries every six months. Although the open house ended yesterday, firefighters urged those unable to attend to visit the to learn more about fire safety and prevention.

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