Sunday was a day of adventure, as we had decided to take our old fire extinguisher to the fire station and get it checked out. We learned that the dry chemical kind we had was not rechargeable, but it was probably past its prime since it was about eight years old and, according to one firefighter, had all of the solid stuff in a wad down on the bottom (he could tell by turning it over a few times). They told us we should just buy a new one.
That sounded like a good plan.
After all, we’d be sure to have a fire if we didn’t have a fire extinguisher, right? I mean, that’s how things work: if you’re prepared for a situation, that situation won’t occur.
The rest of the day consisted mainly of journeying afar to the ye olde dump, only to discover that the hazardous waste area, where one would ordinarily recycle one’s old fire extinguishers, is closed on Sunday. We went to a burger place instead and got lemonade.
Once home, and after installing the new extinguisher, I took Michael outside to the back yard with the old extinguisher to demonstrate their operation.
“See? Just squeeze here and let it shoot!” We blasted the old garden area (which is now just a very large cat box) with a healthy layer of yellow powder. Michael was sufficiently impressed, and then asked if he could be dismissed so he could go back in and play some Zombie Apocalypse game on his DS.
Fast forward to Monday evening. Daddy had arrived home only minutes before, and after depositing keys and wallet and other accoutrements, plopped his carcass down on the couch to “rest up” before getting dinner going.
That’s when daddy noticed smoke in the back yard.
“Michael? Go look out the window and see where that smoke is coming from, please.”
He went to the window and squinted. It was hard to see with the sun blaring through – something we are definitely not used to here.
“I can’t see. It’s too bright.”
“Probably someone barbecuing,” I said, and thought nothing more of it.
A few minutes later – I saw more smoke. A lot more smoke. It seemed to be coming from the yard behind ours, near the corner by the play structure.
“That’s a lot of smoke…” I said to no one in particular.
I arose from my recumbent position and went to the window. That’s when I saw flames licking the fence. Big flames, reaching a couple of feet higher than the fence itself.
It took me a moment or two to realize that this was no barbecue, and that no one was out there tending to the fire – this was a blaze, and it was spreading.
“The fence is on fire!” I yelled.
“Get the fire extinguisher!” my wife yelled in response.
I ran to grab it. The brand-new fire extinguisher, less than 24 hours in its place, was called into active duty.
“Call the fire department!” I yelled as I hurried out the back door. As I ran I could see the flames reaching the lowest branches of our tree. I still couldn’t tell where it was coming from exactly, but it was definitely on the fence that separates our next door neighbor from the house behind us both. I stood at the corner where the fences meet and I let loose with the dry chemical spray, shooting over the fence and hoping I was making a difference.
In no time at all the extinguisher was used up, but the flames persisted. Luckily I had the old one we tested the day before. I grabbed that one and squeezed off a blast – and nothing came out at all.
Disgusted, I dropped the extinguisher and ran toward the house to grab the hose. I could hear my wife on the phone talking to the 911 operator. Then she asked me: “How far is it from the house?”
“At the lot line! About 25 feet!” I called back, yanking the hose reel off the house, opening the spigot and pulling the hose across the deck and out toward the fire, which by this time had resumed its destructive fury.
I managed to get a good spray over the fence, and saw billows of steam pouring out of the neighbor’s yard. It was then that I had the brilliant idea of standing on the play structure that was right there.
Jumping up on the lowest platform, I could easily see the problem area, and determine exactly what was going on.
While I sprayed down the fence, the culprit became obvious. Up against the fence, in my next door neighbor’s yard, was a compost bin. It was entirely blackened and covered in ashes. Near it was a plastic flower pot that had melted on the side nearest the bin. Next to it was another wooden planter that was charred on the side closest to the bin. All around the bin were signs of heat and fire, particularly on the fence.
I continued to spray as I heard the fire engines pull up.
Apparently, the compost bin had ignited the fire by spontaneous combustion. I’d read about it, but never actually witnessed it in action. The composting action naturally creates heat, but if it can’t escape it climbs to the ignition point – and sparks a fire.
“Looks like you did our job for us! Good work!” they said. Michael and my wife joined me on the play structure to gawk at the action going on next door.
The firefighters assessed the situation, used their axe to knock down the loose and charred fence boards, and hosed the area down further. One of them got a shovel and turned the compost over a few times. Another walked up with a thermal camera and began scanning the area for hot spots. I explained to Michael what was going on, how the fire started, and what the firemen were doing to make sure it was all safe.
By this time my neighbor had arrived and was talking with the firefighters. With the situation under control and pictures taken, we hopped off the play structure and ambled back in the house, reliving the highlights of the excitement.
I expected my neighbor to come over and talk to me about it later, at least to find out whether or not there might have been some other cause for the fire, but he never did.
So – would it be considered ironic that a fire breaks out on the day after we get a brand new fire extinguisher, to replace the one we’ve had for eight years and never used?
Probably not. But I will let the pedants out there discuss the true definition of irony.