This is my house on Saturday, May 29 at about 9:50 a.m. A neighbour across the street had just come to the door to tell me to get out of the house because it was on fire. I immediately got the two kids who were home and the family dog out. How could this be I thought? We do not smoke, my neighbours to whom I am attached do not smoke, I had not cooked anything in the kitchen, nor had a fire in the fireplace etc etc.... We saw the massive dark plumes of smoke come up from the back and the brilliant orange flames which eventually reached 30 feet into the air. It was my back deck on the third floor. As many neighbours and friends comforted us, we witnessed the wind move the fire onto my neighbours' deck.
The firefighters arrived with many trucks, police and EMS. From what others tell me, the neighbourhood was chock-a-block full with emergency response vehicles. Truth be told when you see your house in flames, it feels as though the firetrucks are not moving as fast as they do when you are driving and have to pull over for them. Please pull far out of the way for all EMS vehicles, it could be your house or loved one. I was very impressed with how careful they were once in our house; they tarped furniture in order to minimize water damage, and found receptacles so catch water that was pouring through the ceilings.
My point on posting this blog is to warn readers of the combustability of potting soil. After reading "Chez Panisse" - the book on Alice Waters' famous restaurant in Berkeley CA, I was inspired to do more gardening. Our backyard gets a beating what with three kids, a trampoline and a basketball net so I thought that pots on the third floor would be the answer. I bought potting soil in large plastic bags and lugged them up through the house to the third floor deck. For two years, I had some results and aspired to do one day do better. I dumped most of the pots into a large plastic garbage pail at the end of the season last year and put the lid on. I had too many pots to dump, so I left the others - exposed to the elements for months. We had very little snow this year, April saw no precipitation whatsoever and the end of May was exceptionally hot and dry. I had intended to do something with the pots on the deck but the weather was oppressive and I delayed doing anything, meanwhile the potting soil was heating up under the blistering sun and perhaps even starting to smolder. I have since learned that potting soil contains up to 85% peat moss, which is a great humidifier when wet, but burns very well when dry. It is possible that the smoldering started all on its own a day or two before the fire actually broke out. Since the fire, I have heard of other peat moss / potting soil fires - which all started spontaneously. These products should come with warning labels on them, informing consumers the of danger of letting the soil and, or peat moss dry out. Also, when the city issues extreme weather alerts - the same warning should also be included.
We are very very fortunate: it happened during the day when a neighbour could see the smoke and warned us. Our smoke alarm did not sound because the door to the deck was closed and the smoke from the fire on the deck was going straight up. Our next door neighbours got out of their house in time as well. Our daughter closed her bedroom door to the hall, an act which according to the Fire Chief, saved both houses from becoming burnt out shells. I never thought that we would be victim to a fire in our house; we are careful, do not smoke and thought that we were informed. It happened so quickly and spread even faster, we are truly very fortunate. The more we share this kind of information, the more we can inform others and avoid similar situations. Take good care.