Ironically, the man who stated that “Genius is initiative on fire” also opined that “No man is ever old enough to know better.” (George Holbrook Jackson, 31 December 1874 – 16 June 1948, British journalist, writer and publisher.)
When it comes to fire, I am dumber than a box of matches. Without that intellectual spark, I have also not benefited from the wisdom of age. So this is my fire story…the first one. Sadly, a second story is forthcoming. Let’s keep them both between friends, for they bring me no gratification. I will deny they ever happened. Except for various police and fire department records, there is no evidence these events actually occurred. Nor will there ever be, as verified by my thorough sifting through the ashes.
The Learning Years!
We purchased our first house in 1990; a two-story colonial constructed in 1889. The skeleton of the house consisted of a framework of aged pine. A good, sturdy, dry, strong…did I say dry…wood. Wood that is 100+ years is referred to, in expert wood-burning circles, as “seasoned”! For 10 years, we lived in that seasoned house.
Homeownership comes with responsibilities…cutting the grass, trimming the hedges, fixing leaks, lighting the furnace pilot light. Not realizing some opportunistic author actually published a completely illustrated book entitled, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Home Repair and Maintenance”, I was left to my own devices (or lack thereof).
The house temperature had dipped below 65, echoing the seasonal conditions expressed by a late Fall day. What heat was left in the house was fast-moving out of the house; soon to be replaced inside by cooling temperatures and, perhaps, snow! “You need to get that furnace started!” I could barely make out the face of my wife through the layers of fleece pull-overs and her favorite wool hoodie blanket. Lacking a competent response, I feigned a sudden and complete hearing loss. (“Furnace…where’s the furnace?”)
Our basement consisted of a 20-by-30 foot “habitable” space. Crawl spaces, the inside joke of home designers, provided additional “space”. The basement floor was partitioned into concrete and dirt portions. I recall seeing a shovel in the corner, but that may be my poor memory or rich imagination. Rounded wood beams…good, seasoned wood beams moved upward to the joists, supporting the weight of the floors above. This was the kind of basement, which warranted a slightly mischievous chuckle every time the local utility company meter-reader knocked on the front door to see it. “Sure, right this way…watch your head!”
The Octopus was located immediately to the right, as you made your way down the stairs. An Octopus furnace is a gravity furnace so-named due to the long ducts coming out of the central unit. It can be quite intimidating, especially to a new homeowner. Standing at the far end of the basement, I stared at the Octopus and, in return, the cold, silent Octopus stared back. The sound of Freddy Krueger scraping his bladed gloves along the ductwork was suddenly broken by a muffled sound from the reality above. “It’s 63 degrees in here!”
I found a cast iron hatch at, what I assumed to be, the furnace front. Stamped into the door were the words “Patent Pending 1875”. With some trepidation, I wondered (for my sake) if the furnace company and patent office had amicably resolved the issues holding up the patent! I kneeled to open the hatch…slowly…and peered into the cold, silent, dark space beyond. With my mind (and heart) still racing, I paused to reflect upon the number of prior homeowners whom had previously knelt in this position…unknowing to the task-at-hand. I looked down at my toolkit, which consisted of a flashlight and box of matches. My first thought was that these items were redundant; I could have accomplished the job with just the matches. Nonetheless, with the potential for gas leaks, I picked up and turned on the flashlight and peered back inside the hatch. I didn’t “see” any!
The pilot light assembly was located deep into the opening; more than an arm’s length. I surmised that the resolution of the patent issue was still pending! Frustrated, I backed out of the opening and looked down at the matches, back at the dark hole, and back at the matches. The matches would be useless after all. This job required something much longer to bridge the great cold expanse. I did a quick visual reconnaissance of the basement looking for the manufacturer’s instruction manual. There must be some logical method to igniting this monster. But there is no method to madness and I quickly concluded that the first homeowner, in a moment of pure genius, had torched the manual to bring about the successful inaugural lighting of the Octopus. Well done, Mr. Horatio Archibald Leadbetter! Well done!
Not to be outdone by the wisdom of a Victorian Age gentleman, I focused my flashlight on the forward crawl space. To my surprise, beneath an old fire extinguisher, I observed a stack of old newspapers. It was my Eureka moment…a lit rolled up newspaper in my hand could extend my outstretched arm to provide the necessary reach. I yelled up stairs, reassuring my wife that things would be “toasty” in a few minutes. I smiled with confidence, knowing that there would be no need to call the father-in-law in for help! “Not this time!” I remarked out loud, as I moved aside the fire extinguisher, grabbed a newspaper and started to roll.
The auto-ignition temperature of paper is 451 degrees Fahrenheit, as eminently asserted in Ray Bradbury’s bestselling novel — “Fahrenheit 451″. However, introducing a lit match to paper significantly shortens the wait for the ambient temperature to reach such extremes. “It’s 61 degrees!!” came the voice from above. We continued to lose ground from the required 451 degrees, so I lit the match…and introduced it to the paper. It was an instant success. And in another instant, too much success…
The idea of holding a flaming 451 degree torch at the end of my outstretched arm was soon abandoned. As I instinctively dropped the newspaper, it unrolled exposing the ignited surfaces to a surge of oxygen-infused air. With the ensuing flash of yellow and orange, I soon found myself comfortably warm, in a well lit room; which, in-turn, exposed me to the problem-at-hand. A large fire in a large place rather than a small fire in a small place. Seasoned wood and all!
Fuels have a flammable range; a certain percentage of oxygen needed to burn. Too much or too little means no flame. Paper is no different. Remove the oxygen source and the fire goes out. In hindsight, I have no doubt that, given the same circumstances, Mr. Horatio Archibald Leadbetter would have engaged his expensive patent leather ankle lace-ups to tap dance bombershay the oxygen right out of that fire. I, however, was just wearing cotton socks…also flammable. Lucky for me, newspaper also burns slow, which gave me time to think.
Again, I heard the muffled voice of my wife. “It’s getting warmer up here…thanks!” (“Save yourself!” I thought to myself)
The far wall flickered with the shadows created by the fire. I was mesmerized by the display, which, for a second, I thought to include the dancing shadow-shape outline of a fire extinguisher. THE FIRE EXTINGUISHER! I hurried to the forward crawl space and grabbed the fire extinguisher, upsetting the remaining stack of newspapers in my haste. Running back to the other end of the basement, I performed a quick once-over of the apparatus. It was old…not Leadbetter old…but old enough for me to surmise that some past owner along the Octopus timeline had stood where I now stood, under these same circumstances. Since the house and furnace were, at least for now, unscathed, I assumed another historical success story. Good job, whoever you were! Good job!
I learned afterwards that the fire extinguisher was of the dry chemical type; which, when used correctly, is excellent in creating a barrier between oxygen and fuel elements (such as newspaper). I also learned…afterwards…that, to be effective, the user should aim at the base of the flames, not at the flames…at the base of the flames…not at the flames. Write that down.
I pulled the pin and aimed at the flames. The effect was immediate. Riding the thrust of the chemical surge, the newspaper, including the fire, raced across the basement floor…30-feet, all the way to the far side, near the disheveled remaining newspapers. While the temperature within my immediate surroundings suddenly dropped, I couldn’t help but chuckle and imagine being handed the large overstuffed bear by the Carnival Barker. But, alas, reality brought me back once again.
Time is a funny thing and so is fire. If you combine the two, you get to these facts. While newspaper burns slow, that’s a relative fact. Newspaper burns slow relative to…say…gasoline, which ignites and burns relatively instantaneous. While paper burns much slower, a newspaper will still be fully consumed in approximately 15 seconds. As another matter of fact, it’s taken much longer to tell this story than for the actual events to run their course. From the point of ignition to the culmination of the fire traversing the 30-foot basement floor, a full 17 seconds expired; and so too did the fire. Precluding other influences (seasoned wood, additional newspaper, or me), it was only a matter of time before the newspaper torch would have burned itself out…but where’s the humor in that.
Failing in my homeowner task, I stepped slowly back up the stairs and was greeted by my wife, still dressed in Alaskan native vestments. Smelling like smoke and a little ashen, I softly inquired “Is your father home?”
Coming Soon: “This is My Fire Story! (The Second One)”