Okay, so briefly, this…

Okay, so briefly, this is what happened. And I would totally have illustrated this with pictures, except my phone was out of power. Which is too bad, because they would have been dramatic.

  1. I was home with the kids all day today because their school closed for President's Day. This saved our house.

  2. Because I was home with them all day, and Kevin was gone at work all day, I didn't do what I usually do, which is stop by the house during the day to check on things, answer questions, enjoy the pretty colors, etc.

  3. So when Kev got home at 5:15 or so, I told him I was going to just go over to the house and check on progress. I might not have bothered, given that it was almost dark and also too cold, but I knew that tomorrow, due to a long day, I wouldn't have a chance to go by at all. So I threw on a coat and drove over the three blocks.

  4. I got to the chain mail gate, had some trouble unlocking it, almost gave up and went home because it was cold and my fingers were starting to hurt, but kept at it, and finally got it open. I went around the house to the front door, since I don't have a key to the new back door yet.

  5. When I went inside, the house smelled odd. Sort of chemical-ish? I figured the guys were using a new paint or stain thing, and I felt sorry for them that they had to work with that smell.

  6. I wandered through the first floor, not seeing many changes, and then went up to the second floor. The smell got stronger as I went upstairs, and when I came out into the library, I noticed white smoke coming out of a white plastic bucket sitting near one of the bookshelf alcoves.

  7. I went over to the bucket, looked inside, saw a pile of stuff, sort of glowing, like embers.

  8. I picked up the bucket (not hot), took it downstairs and out the back door. At first, I put it down next to the house -- then I rethought that, and carried it out to the empty center of the backyard, next to a big snowdrift.

  9. I went to my car to recharge my phone enough to call Pam (my general contractor). It took a while -- partway through, I went back into the yard and saw that the smoking bucket was now blazing. Back to the car, and a phone now charged sufficiently for a call. Pam said she'd be right over, with a fire extinguisher.

  10. The phone died again, but even though I wanted to take photos, I thought I'd better go keep an eye on the fire. It was windy, and throwing sparks, and there was a lot of scrap wood around my backyard. It was cold, and the fire didn't do much to keep me warm.

  11. Pam came by about ten minutes later (luckily, she lives locally). The fire was dying down by then (having consumed the bucket's sides and whatever was inside). We tried kicking a little snow on it, but that just made it flare more. So we waited, and poked it with a stick, until it was just embers, and then completely out.

  12. We went inside and walked through the house, Pam picking up any rags she saw. She took them outside and spread them out on the snow.

  13. The head painter arrived, and we walked the whole house (which smells very smoky), and they talked. Conclusion -- still to be determined. There was stripping and painting and staining all going on in that house.

  14. But tung oil-soaked rags combust easily, and some of the painters weren't used to working with tung oil (I'd requested it), so it seems pretty likely to me that it was tung oil-soaked rags that spontaneously combusted.

  15. A lot of people don't seem to believe in spontaneous combustion, and spontaneous combustion of humans is a myth. But as it turns out, it is damnably easy for oil-soaked rags to combust if you throw them in a bucket or a corner or anywhere enclosed. The Straight Dope says so. And apparently, tung oil heats up really fast, faster than linseed oil, which is already pretty fast. Please dispose of your oil-soaked rags appropriately. If I were a woodworker, for example, I might invest in one of these.

  16. Pam mentioned that in the next suburb over, River Forest, they require sprinklers be installed on job sites. Hmm...they are clever, those River Foresters.

  17. There are a whole host of new job site safety rules going into place immediately, and the workers are going to have a big meeting tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. I'm glad I don't have to be there, as I suspect there will be yelling.

  18. I'm not actually mad at anyone. Mistakes happen, and you have to allow for human error in this sort of thing. We could walk around shouting about firing people, but I suspect that everyone involved is going to be super-careful going forward. For the last six weeks of work, it's going to be the safest job site ever.

  19. Kev and I do feel pretty stupid for never actually getting the builder's risk insurance that Pam recommended we buy several months ago. We meant to -- we're not sure how that fell off the to-do list. If you are renovating your house, please invest in builder's risk insurance.

  20. Everyone agrees that it's a damn good and lucky thing that I'm a little compulsive about checking on the house every day. Because otherwise, it would have likely burned to the ground.

After Anand getting a second degree burn yesterday (he's healing nicely, and didn't seem to be in any pain today), I could use a little less excitement in the rest of the week, please. Also, less burning. Did I anger the gods of fire in some way? I'm really really sorry.

17 thoughts on “Okay, so briefly, this…”

  1. Wow–it’s a good thing you went over there! You not only saved your own house, but very possibly the houses on either side too. Way to get in good with the new neighbors. 🙂

    We just stained some floors and the warnings on the mineral spirits container made me paranoid about fire. I guess I had good reason to think that way.


    Well, I’m glad you managed to get there in the nick of time, and I hope Anand’s arm heals. And also, good grief.

  3. As a construction safety engineer I can attest that oil soaked rags belong in metal cans, with lids. Period. They spontaneously combust and are a common source of fires.

    The painters, in legalese, “knew or should have known” this. Glad you and your home made it safely through this near-miss. You almost had quite a fire.

  4. I’m very glad that you’re safe, and that your house is safe.

    One suggestion. (And it’s pure Monday-morning quarterbacking– I don’t know that I’d have kept my head half as well as you did.) If anything like this ever happens again– and dearly I hope that it doesn’t– once you have phone service, please call 911. (I’m glad that the fire could be contained with the contractor’s extinguisher, but if those sparks had spread..)

  5. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Heh. Mike, I didn’t even think of calling 911. Funny. I did almost go bang on my neighbor Ron’s door, and I’m sure he would have thought of it.

    Although maybe not — it really wasn’t a very big fire — about the size of a small campfire. I don’t think there was any actual danger once I got it outside and was watching it in case I needed to stomp on a flying spark or two. (Kids, never leave a fire unattended…)

  6. Oh wow. So, so glad you happened to go over, and that nobody was hurt, and that the beautiful house you’ve invested so much or yourselves in is OK.

    And that Anand is healing nicely!

  7. This exact thing happened to a woman I know in her family’s brand new house when she was young (probably about 12). Her mother was staining something in the brand new house, all furniture and everything moved in, everything except the people, and unfortunately everything went up in flames with all their belongings after she neatly folded a rag and left it in the bathroom. I am so sorry about this and I’m not sure what else to say. I think buying insurance is the only way to handle nightmares like this.

  8. So scary! Good for you for going over and walking around the house.

    A question for you. In many entries, you have talked about your kids have cost you writing time; I think most recently in your last letter to your children you said each of them has cost you two years of writing time. Have you thought about what handling this house has cost you? If so, how would you compare it?

  9. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Oh, lord. Well, if we’d stuck to the original thing we thought we were signing up for (6 months) and also let Pam make most of the decisions, then I think it wouldn’t have been too bad. Maybe 5 hours a week for 6 months.

    As is — it’s at least a book’s worth of time, I think. None of it in the middle of the night, though. 🙂

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