News Year’s Grease Fire, "One of Life’s Cheap Lessons"

By Diane Castrovinci

As the Director of Development for the New Canaan Red Cross in Connecticut, it is my job to inform our constituents of the importance of blood donations, disaster preparedness and health and safety education, and ask them to support our life saving efforts. I am always well prepared for my job with the long list of services the Red Cross provides to the New Canaan Community and beyond, and I am surrounded by people who teach and attend hundreds of hours of Health and Safety and Disaster Preparedness classes, but I am embarrassed to say that on New Years Day 2009 I found myself neither prepared nor trained for an emergency.

It is our tradition to spend New Years at our home in Loon Lake with friends and family. As I stood in front of the stove New Years morning manning the two large griddles of bacon (no diet resolutions for us!), I started a grease fire on the stove as I attempted to pour grease into a metal bowl and it started flaming out the back onto the wall! All the things that happened after this point are quite distressing for my Red Cross and emergency services friends to hear. It literally "hurts their ears" as Steve Martin says in "My Blue Heaven" and they shake their heads in disbelief. The good news is that our house still stands, uncharred, but only because of dumb luck or Divine intervention, not because we did many things according to Red Cross or emergency procedures.

What We Did Wrong: For starters, I tried to sprinkle water on the fire with my kitchen sink hose. It didn’t reach, so of course I started to fill a large bowl with water. Apparently rule #1 in the grease fire handbook clearly states that water will in fact carry a grease fire wherever the water splatters! As I waited for the kitchen spout to fill the large container, my husband Tom ran to fetch the fire extinguisher which we dutifully purchased in 1996 – I think it was the kind you can use on a grease fire, but it didn’t work so we’ll never know. Tom pulled the stove out from the wall to hatchet it open to check for fire inside the wall and opened the window for the smoke to escape - that of course fed the fire oxygen which fueled the flame.

What We Did Right: I immediately called the fire department. They are 30 minutes away, so had a true fire taken hold they may have saved the cellar! This part probably goes in the ‘what we did wrong section’, but the fire department couldn’t find us because we don’t have clear signage out on County Route 26 for our little dirt road. We did have the kids grab the dogs and evacuate but it was Cousin Jeff who clearly saved the day. Before I could fling my big bowl of water on the fire, he found a large stainless steel bowl and smothered the flame! Yeah Jeff!!! The Fire Department finally found us and they brought their heat sensor to see if there was any fire in the wall. There wasn’t. We salvaged breakfast that actually became brunch and told Jeff how brilliant he was over and over again!

What I Should Have Done:

New Canaan Fire Marshal Fred Baker has some very sage advice. He said that with a grease fire, covering it with a lid will usually smother the fire, but if it doesn’t, call the fire department first, tell all the other residents in the house to go to safety and be sure the fire is not between you and your exit. He pointed out that fire extinguishers can be tricky with a grease fire because they come out with such force and can carry the fire, much like water will. And regarding fire extinguishers, Fire Marshal Baker recommended purchasing a multi purpose fire extinguisher, but you can purchase grease and electric fire extinguishers for the kitchen. He said to be sure to read the directions, get some training on proper usage and be sure they are serviceable because they do cake up and expire; no doubt the problem with my 13 year old extinguisher! He pointed out that pouring baking soda on a grease fire can also help to extinguish it.

My husband Tom calls our experience "one of life’s cheap lessons". Always a different perspective, I saw how little we know and how unprepared we are! So now what? I recommend that at our annual Loon Lake Homeowners Association meeting we have Red Cross and Bloomingdale Fire Department staff on hand to give us a primmer on preparedness and fire safety. Proper signage will go up to guide the emergency vehicles to our house at the lake and we’ll be purchasing three multi purpose fire extinguishers. Maybe one of the new stylish ones for our kitchen from the Home Depot!

It was cold and it was New Years morning when the Bloomingdale Fire Department received my call, but these true professionals came out to execute the jobs they have been trained to do, and we truly appreciate their hard work and their dedication to the lifesaving job they do every day.

For the rest of us…get Red Cross Ready. Preparedness will help you during an emergency and hopefully make it a "cheap lesson" instead of a tragedy.

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Please click on our New Canaan Red Cross New Canaan Ready Campaign for preparedness information or contact you local Red Cross, the Northern New York American Red Cross in Malone for preparedness guides and materials (518) 483-2360.