We Didn’t Start the Fire


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Our favorite vacation spot is a sleepy little undiscovered beach town in North Carolina. We don’t go every single year. Some years we’ve taken the kids to the Smoky Mountains, or to Disney. Sometimes we’d have a family obligation, like a wedding, or a reunion, and we’d use our vacation week to party in Chicago, Detroit, San Diego, and the like. But we keep coming back to our beloved beach town.

Hubby’s parents co-owned a small condo in the beach town; my husband had great childhood memories going there. When our kids were very young, we were lucky enough to be allowed to ‘borrow’ the one-bedroom condo (with bunk beds in the hallway!) to help make a beach trip like this affordable. As the years went by, we found we could afford to rent a beautiful waterfront beach house, so long as we did it in the spring. Later we found we finally could afford summer. One year—our fourth year renting this same waterfront beach house—we invited my folks to join us. We wanted to share with them our favorite home-away-from-home, in our favorite town-away-from-town.

Our first full day at the beach house, my mother informed us they would be providing dinner for the family from the cooler they had brought in the car with them. We would be having slow cooked barbeque pork on Kaiser rolls, coleslaw, potato chips, and pickle spears. My daughter, AKA The Vegetarian, informed us she’d be baking herself a potato.

Suddenly free from dinner making duties, I went outside with my camera to capture the gorgeous pink, orange, and purple dappled sky as the sun began to set. When I came back in, something appeared to be wrong with the oven. There was a small amount of smoke coming out from its vent.

“What’s burning?” I asked my daughter, while I flicked on the stove fan. A light stream of smoke was blowing out of the oven vent, like there was a tiny little chain smoker exhaling from the inside.

“We can’t figure it out.” She opened the oven to show me her potato innocently baking (not burning) on a foil lined pan, inside an immaculate oven. No spills. No charcoaled food particles. Just clean oven.

My mother, busily bustling around the kitchen, opened a few windows before returning to her semi-frozen barbeque thawing project. She was not concerned.

Satisfied there was no fire, I shrugged as I left the room to go put away my camera. I busied myself grabbing beach towels off the balcony and switching on living room lights and ceiling fans.

When next I came back toward the kitchen it seemed…smokier. Somewhat bar-like. My mom and I checked inside the oven once again. Nothing inside was burning. My daughter, somewhat offended that we even considered that she didn’t know what she was doing insisted, “It’s not the potato!”

She was right. But the smoke had to be coming from somewhere. I pulled open the broiler section, lifted out the pan. Nothing. My mom, inspecting from over my shoulder said, “Maybe some old grease somehow dripped back behind the broiler where we can’t see.”

This seemed like the only plausible explanation. The oven was fairly new. The main body was not only meticulously clean, but was solid and seamless in construct. There would be nowhere for food or liquid to exit the oven body except the oven door. Which was spotless.

“Is it smoking more than before? Maybe I should turn off the vent,” I wondered aloud.

“No. I think it’s slowing down. The grease will burn off wherever it is. It’ll stop soon,” my mom assured us as she deftly sliced the rolls.

I hoped she was right. I opened the cabinets on either side of the stove and felt the insides adjacent to the oven. Not warm, really. Or at least, no warmer than the front of the oven.

But it was bothering me. What could possibly be causing smoke to come out through an oven vent when nothing inside the oven was burning?

This is the point in the story I should describe how the house is set up. It is technically a three-story house, built up on stilts, which make it a four-story tall structure. The house is split into two rentable units. The top and middle floors made up our unit. Our kitchen is on the top floor. The only ways to get in and out of our unit is to use our unit’s elevator, or by using the door off the kitchen leading to four flights of warped wooden stairs, some of which should have been replaced in the late 90s.

My husband appears from nowhere. “What’s burning?” He sounds suitably concerned, but really, he just came to grab a beer.

We go through the motions of opening the oven, showing him my daughter’s non-burning—and with this many door openings, non-cooking– potato, then show him how the smoke comes out of the vent when the door is closed.

“Huh,” he says. And leaves to go see what’s on The History Channel.

I glance at the oven timer. The potato still has half an hour to cook. I’m concerned the smoke alarms are going to be triggered. I’d really hate to have to bother the fire department with this, seeing as there’s no fire and the smoke alarms are silent.

I open every window on the top floor of the beach house. I start to wonder if this oven issue will be held against us by the rental agency. I grab my phone and video record the oven industriously blowing smoke into the air in a way Detroiters haven’t seen in years. I have my daughter open the oven door for the camera to show that nothing inside is burning. She uses silent, showy hand gestures reminiscent of a Price is Right prize model.

I decide to email a message to the rental company to let them know our oven is misbehaving. Maybe they’ll come look at it tomorrow. And not blame us. I decide to add an apology for bothering them.

When I return from sending the email, I’m sure the room has become smokier, as my mother and daughter are floating around in a dream-like fog. They make an ethereal picture.

I make a determination: the oven needs to be shut off. The potato can finish cooking in the microwave.

My daughter shuts off the oven.

Smoke continues to stream out.

Determined, my mother calls everyone to eat.

We convene around the table, the menfolk questioning what the hell we did to the oven.

Whilst vigorously defending our collective cooking honor—apparently with wild gesticulations and rude hand gestures—I inadvertently knocked my fork off the table. Leaning down with my face at floor level to pick up my fork, I have an epiphany.

I can breathe.

It was getting down low—you know, where first responders tell you to go when crawling out of a smoke-filled fiery inferno—that made me realize how unbreathable the air had become. I also realized that we were sitting on the wrong side of the oven should it suddenly go Mount Vesuvius on us. The oven was built into a floor-to-ceiling cabinet directly between the dining room, where we were seated, and the door to the stairs, our only logical point of egress. There was an elevator, but those were a no-no in case of a fire. There were windows, but we were four stories up. My parents were 70. If the smoke didn’t kill them, a fall from that height certainly would.

I stood up suddenly into a cloudy haze that would have made Cheech and Chong proud, and announced to my oxygen deprived family, “I’m calling 911.”

My husband asked my father to pass him the potato chips.

My mom, enjoying her sandwich said, “Did I tell you the barbeque recipe I used calls for a can of root beer?” The table en masse emits a joyful sound of wonderment at her announcement.

Undeterred, I retrieve my phone and pause. If I dial 911 from my out-of-state cellphone, will it get routed to the local fire department here at the beach? Or will it be routed to my hometown? Better to just google the local fire department. Now my phone is beeping with an incoming call. It’s the rental agency. They must have gotten my email. I instruct my husband to call the local fire department directly while I take the rental agency call.

Mr. America sighs from the other room with the beleaguered gusto of a teenager being asked to take out the garbage while he’s playing Grand Theft Auto. He does, however, put down his gherkin to make his assigned call.

On my phone, I explain to the on-call rental agent what’s going on. We have a lot of smoke emitting from the empty stove, but no fire. The oven is now off. I can’t tell if it’s emitting less smoke now that it’s off, or more. The smoke alarm has not alerted yet. She thinks we should maybe leave the building, but she’s going to call the agency owner to see what he advises.

In the meantime, my husband is explaining the same scenario to some nice fella at the fire department. Hubby’s tone conveys this information in the same way he might report a cat is stuck in a tree, but he never really liked the cat. He’s not really selling the urgency.

Now his phone beeps.

It’s the rental agency owner. My husband says to the nice fireman, “Lemme call you back.”

And he hangs up on him.

Hangs up on our 911 call, as it were.

Tim, the agency owner, says we’re idiots, and that we need to get out of the house, and he is calling 911 himself. Okay, he didn’t say the ‘idiots’ part but I’m positive he was thinking it.

I was thinking it.

Tim calls 911 while still on the phone with Hubby. He then warns Hubby to be prepared that a full-on fire engine will be showing up with lights blazing and sirens blaring. Inexplicably, I’m mildly embarrassed picturing the scene this will make, and wondering what our neighbors will think. I don’t want to disturb everyone. I’m mentally apologizing to them.

Tim tells Hubby he’s also on his way as well, he’d see us outside in about twenty minutes.

My husband and I explode into action. Rather, I explode into action. Hubby is now firmly in first gear, which is an improvement on neutral. My husband orders the kids outside, no they can’t go retrieve the Xbox. I’m grabbing cellphones, kids’ shoes, sweatshirts, wallets.

I look to my mother and father. They are still seated. And eating, though they are eating much faster than before.

“We have enough time to finish,” my mother assures me. “The smoke alarm hasn’t gone off yet!”

“Mom, they’ve called 911. Somewhere on this tiny island, firefighters are donning turnout gear and sliding down a pole.”

My mother considers this mental image. I can tell, in her mind, all the firefighters are male, and every last one of them is hot. Shaking off her wayward thoughts, she stands and starts clearing the table. “Let me just get the dishwasher loaded,” she says.

I sputter, “Seriously?”

Ever the consummate housekeeper, she informs me, “We can’t have firemen in here with dishes in the sink.” The word fireman is said with the same gravitas one would say The President, or The Pope, or The Queen Mum.

I’m now bodily trying to shuffle my stubborn septuagenarian parents to the door. Only the approaching wail of a siren piecing the night gets them moving.

When the truck pulls up, my parents are winded from the perilous descent on the rickety stairs, and my mother is discomfited by the idea that the nice firemen might think her a sloppy housekeeper once they see our silverware lying unrinsed in the sink.

The firemen are looking dubiously from us to the open doorway at the top of the house.

“Burn something in the oven?” one of the older firemen asks. I can tell they’re mildly amused. Things must have been slow at the station.

“No, I swear.” I say defensively. We know how to bake a potato!

“And it’s the top floor, huh?” He asked this in such a way it led me to believe they were never lucky enough to get those more desirable first-floor fires.

So off they go, five fully outfitted, strapping (and semi-strapping) firemen, up four flights of stairs, their sense of urgency that of men heading in for group prostate exams at gunpoint.

When they make it halfway up, my mom thinks to call out, “Pardon the mess!”

I look for my kids. My daughter is posing in front of the firetruck, flashing peace signs, sticking out her tongue, taking selfies, presumably to post on Instagram. #Vacation #Flaming Hot #First Responders #Blessed.

My son appears to be FaceTiming with someone. He’s currently winning the ‘this is what happened on my spring break’ war with his friends.

A few minutes later, one of the younger firemen pops out the fourth-floor kitchen door. He races down the stairs, hands on the rails. He moves past us wordlessly and goes to one side of the truck, opens a compartment and pulls out a medieval looking spear, nay a trident.

“What is that,” I wonder aloud.

“It’s a Halligan,” my mother tells us. To me she says, “I learned that watching Chicago Fire.”

We collectively watch, transfixed, as the handsome young fireman races back up the stairs with his tool Halligan.

I’m feeling strangely vindicated. There is no way that super-cute and extensively trained fireman hauled ass four flights of stairs with a medieval jousting weapon to pick out an over-toasty spud skin from a crack behind the stove.

My mother says worriedly, “Did you remember to put the coleslaw back in the fridge?”

The vacation rental company owner shows up. We’d never met him in person before this. Still, my dad and husband appear to vaguely recognize him. We discover he’s a retired professional football player. They shakes hands and chat. Very nice guy. He seems genuinely pleased to see we’re alive and well, and that the structure does not appear to be a towering beach house inferno.

We wait.

Finally, the captain comes down the stairs and heads toward us. He and Mr. Football exchange familiar friendly nods. They clearly know each other. Small town.

The captain turns to us and says seriously, “Good thing you called when you did.”

I see no need to remind him that we didn’t call. Or that we did, but in the end, hung up on the fire department in favor of the rental agency.

He continues, “Another five minutes and the entire cabinet unit would have been engulfed. Then the kitchen. Then the rest of the top floor. Mind if I ask how long it was smoldering before you called?”

My family instantly regressed into a classroom of unprepared math students, the teacher having just asked for a volunteer to outline, with examples, the Pythagorean theorem. No eye contact, my family is suddenly interested in the state of their manicures, their shoes, the moonlit ocean, the tires on the firetruck.

Since no one else seems willing to answer, I finally say, “Mmmmbyfrtyfvmnts.”

“I’m sorry?” the captain asks, ticking a finger behind his ear, unable to decipher my mumblings.

I sigh. “Maybe 45 minutes?”

Another fireman comes up behind him, smiling but clearly incredulous. “What on earth were y’all waiting for?”

I scuffed the toe of my shoe in the crushed shells and gravel. I said low, “We didn’t want to bother you.”

The man looked nonplussed. Then his eyes brightened like he’d suddenly figured it all out. “Are ya’ll Canadian?”

I believe he was trying to understand our reticence to complain, in his mind evoking our kind Canadian brethren, our famously polite and apologetic northern neighbors.

And here’s the thing. When it comes down to it, we really didn’t want to bother them. This story notwithstanding, my family is comprised of reasonably intelligent people. There were no flames to be seen. The smoke alarm appeared to be fully charged—the little green light had been aglow—and it never went off. Everyone was upright, seemingly alert, and breathing. There was no emergency in our eyes. You only call in an emergency.

Beyond that, our family has a deep respect for first responders. We also read the news and watch enough television (beyond Chicago Fire) that we know people call 911 for the dumbest reasons, wasting the community’s resources, and spreading first responders thin. This risks their availability for those who really need them.

We didn’t want to be those people.

“The smoke alarm never went off,” I suddenly remembered to say.

The Captain gave me a serious nod, acknowledging this point in our defense. He turns to Tim, AKA Mr. Football. “She’s right. The smoke alarm is hardwired in. It looks active, but it never alerted. I’m putting it in the report. Let the homeowner know.”

At the captain’s invitation -and assurance that it was safe- we all follow him back up the four flights of stairs so he can show us what happened.

“When we got to the third flight,” the captain said,  “we could smell wood burning, and knew this was no potato fire.”

At the top of the stairs we see a large piece of charred plywood, a hole the approximate size and shape of an oven in its center. The captain explained this piece was once inside the cabinet, under the oven, but whoever installed it had put it way too close to the oven’s bottom. Not our fault. It was going to happen eventually. We were just lucky it happened the way it did, with a reasonably good outcome.

When we step into the kitchen, we could see they’d used the Halligan tool to pry the entire oven/broiler combo out of the built-in floor-to- ceiling cabinet. The oven unit was face-down in the middle of the kitchen floor like the dead perp it was. Fire extinguishing foam coated the now empty shell of a cabinet unit, and some of the floor. The familiar campfire scent of wood smoke permeated everything.

Apropos of nothing, the captain says to the other firemen, “Forty-five minutes. They didn’t want to bother us,” as if continuing an ongoing discussion they’d been having while extinguishing our cabinet conflagration.

“Dude!” said a younger surfer-type fireman, “Never worry about that. This is our job. Besides, it was my night to cook. Y’all got me off the hook!” he grinned adorably.

My mother, of course, takes this as her opening to offer the firemen refreshments. They very regretfully decline.

She somehow still manages to send them back to the station with pulled-pork sandwiches and half a bag of potato chips. She apologized three more times for interrupting their dinner.

I think that one fireman was onto something.

We might be just be a teensy bit Canadian.