That Time the House Almost Caught Fire

Does anyone else feel like 2020 never actually left? It just stuck a wig on and started calling itself 2021?

So this morning our house almost caught fire. That was fun. Our house is about 35 years old, which means it’s of an age where some of the original parts aren’t working as well as they used to. I can relate to this on a personal level, by the way. I’m not judging you, house. It happens to all of us. Anyway, so the office/fourth bedroom (which is off of the living room) and the hallway that leads from the living room to the laundry room and garage both had original light fixtures in them. Think brass and glass and small, weirdly-shaped, non-energy saving lightbulbs inside them. The same goes for the fixture that was at the upstairs landing, outside all the bedrooms. We replaced that fixture this past summer after the final weird bulb in it burnt out.

The fixture in the office, in particular, had been worrying me ever since we moved in. The glass “cage” (for lack of a better term) that went over the fixture and bulbs had been dangling loose and threatening to fall on our heads. Of the four sockets for bulbs, one was empty, two contained lit bulbs and the third contained a bulb that appeared to be fine but wasn’t lit. Awhile back, one of the two working bulbs went out and we were left with a single, dim bulb. Two days ago, that final bulb burnt out. I was relieved, thinking we could finally replace the fixture and I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. But, of course, it’s only been two days so that hasn’t happened yet.

Last night, Zach moved the one not-dead-but-not-lighting-up bulb from it’s socket into the socket where the final bulb had been. He figured this would give us that single-dim-bulb level of light to get us through a few more days while we look for a new fixture. So this morning, at some point, someone turned on the light switch in the office. I don’t know who or when. But awhile later I was sitting at the kitchen table working on school stuff with Eleanor and Alden when all the lights in the house started to flicker, repeatedly. I thought, “That’s weird. I wonder what’s causing that.” A minute or two later, I started smelling an electrical burning smell coming from the direction of the living room.

Anyone who has ever smelled an electrical fire will absolutely recognize that smell. I jumped up and ran to the office, where the smell was extremely strong. I couldn’t see any smoke, but the room was pretty dark with no working light so I couldn’t be positive there wasn’t any. I yelled for the kids to get their shoes on and sent them to the neighbors house. At the same time, I ran and flipped the circuit breaker and called 911. I knew the light fixture was the source, but couldn’t be sure the wiring in the ceiling above it hadn’t caught fire. The burning smell was really strong by this point and not dissipating at all after flipping the circuit breaker.

I told all this to the firefighters who arrived about five minutes later. I told them where to find the office room and they went in to investigate. About ten or fifteen minutes later they came out to report that it was indeed the light fixture in the office, and that they could smell the electrical burn smell as soon as they went in the front door. The light fixture and ceiling all around it were a good twenty degrees hotter than the rest of the room and me flipping the circuit breaker when I did likely prevented an actual fire. They advised me to leave the circuit breakers off until we could get an electrician out to investigate whether it was the fixture itself or the wiring above it that was the source of the fire.

I had the firefighters explain to our kids that it was safe to go back in the house (Eleanor, especially, was shaken up and worried by the fact I had rushed them out and called 911). Then we thanked them and waved goodbye. Fortunately, we had recently had an electrician out to our house for a small wiring job and he was able to show up within half an hour. He confirmed that it was the light fixture, not the household wiring, that was the source and showed me the blackened wiring on the backside of the fixture. I had him remove that fixture and the matching one in the hallway and cap off the wires. He told us we were safe to turn the circuit breakers back on until we get new fixtures. Although, it has since come to my attention that I need him to come back out and investigate why our circuit breaker didn’t trip itself when all the lights in the house started flickering. We may need a new breaker in there as well.

In the meantime, the breaker is back on. Which is good because, not only did it control the lights in the office, living room, and kitchen, it also was the power to our wi-fi and TV. Can you imagine the horror of having those out for days??? The kids were a bit disappointed we got the wi-fi powered back up so quickly and they didn’t have the convenient excuse of missing out on the rest of the virtual school-day. They all know the smell of an electrical fire now, though, and exactly what to do if they ever smell it. And Eleanor is a mini-celebrity in her class after telling them about having a fire truck come to her house today. I do not mind that I am the hero in her story (“We had an electrical fire! But my mom stopped it just in time!”).

All’s well that ends well. We are grateful for our amazing neighbors: one family took in our kids, another texted to see if I needed someone to watch the kids for awhile, and two others came out to make sure we were okay. And we are thankful for our fire fighters who responded so quickly and made sure our home was safe. And we appreciate the electrician who came over as quickly as possible, even though he was about to leave for the weekend with his family. The world is full of good people and we’re lucky enough to be surrounded by many of them.

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