Monday, August 6, 2012

How to write about fire accurately

This is one of those areas that I see misrepresented in fiction all the time. I do not have professional experience in dealing with fires, but since I've been evacuated several times due to forest fires and experienced my house burning down (someone I lived with died in that fire) and talked extensively about house fires with firemen and detectives, I know a thing or two. There's a bunch of myths I'd like to debunk, so that writers can portray these events more accurately. I'd rather no one else have to suffer through a fire to be able to write about it correctly.

Myth #1: Firemen rush into a house to save the people inside.

If someone is hanging out a window, screaming for help, then yes, they will help, but otherwise, if they're trapped inside, the likelihood of them even searching is slim to none, until the person is already dead.

This will sound heartless at first until you realize the logistics. There is no database out there that keeps track of how many people live in each house at any given time. They have no idea if you invited friends over or if you left to go to the grocery store. There's a lot of confusion over how many people there are inside while the whole thing is happening. Every firemen that enters a house while it's still on fire, risks their own life and there might be no one inside. They control the fire first and then they search for survivors or bodies.

Bystanders and witnesses (who helped combat the fire and tried to figure out if anyone was trapped inside) saw no signs of life while they screamed through the windows asking if there was anyone was trapped when my house was on fire. Our neighbor was the one who called 9-1-1. They thought the house was empty, until my boyfriend and I arrived, told the firemen how many people lived there and who we thought was at the house at the time and they found a body of a woman and a dog. Until then, they knew nothing.

Myth #2: The only danger of being trapped in a house that's on fire is of burning to death.

I see this a lot on television and in books, when in reality, people who die in house fires rarely burn to death. Their bodies may have burned after they are dead, but it's not usually the cause of death. My boyfriend's mom died due to asphyxiation from lack of oxygen.

A lot of people don't realize the amount of smoke that's in a house fire. I see it all the time on television, half the room is burning up, but the character can still see the whole thing clearly. This is not reality at all, as anyone who has burned something in the oven can tell you. Even a small fire, like that, can fill the whole house with smoke (which is why we need things like chimneys for lighting fires in our fireplace.) Oxygen feeds fires, so it will suck up all the air in a room if there's enough of it, replace it with smoke, and make it literally impossible to breath. This is how the majority of people die in a fire.

And even if that wasn't the case, temperatures in a house that's on fire can reach ridiculous heights. My boyfriend and I's room was spared from the flames, but it was still destroyed. It was two thousand degrees inside my house and everything made of plastic melted. Clothing with delicate fabrics were destroyed. Smoke from the fire damaged everything. I can just imagine what those kind of temperatures could do to a person.

There's also the danger of falling debris and an unstable building. When a fireman went searching for my boyfriend's mom's body, he fell through our living room floor and into the cement garage below. He was injured.

And that leads me to . . . .

Myth #3: It's a good idea to run into the house and save someone you know is inside.

This is a horrible idea, even though people do it on television all the time. Not only are there the dangers of asphyxiation, falling debris, and being overwhelmed by the heat of the house, even if you never encounter the flame, but there's also the fact that you can see nothing. The smoke will be too thick for you to see through and will irritate your eyes. So it's very difficult to find anyone or anything, even if you know already where its located.

I hate when people saunter into a house as if it's nothing on TV while it's on fire. In real life, you have to crawl on your hands and knees (because less smoke and more oxygen is present near the ground) and cover your mouth with a wet rag and even if you do that, you're putting a huge risk on your life.

We don't know what my boyfriend's mom was doing exactly when she died. Our guess was that she was trying to save our crippled dog that she loved. She died a few feet away from the back door, likely too dizzy from lack of oxygen and blinded by the smoke to have any idea where she was standing.

According to the firemen, she was up and walking around the house longer than most people are. She probably could have gotten out of the house if it had been her sole focus. But because of television programs, she probably thought she could grab the dog and leave easily. Unfortunately, the dog was so frightened it bit several people (unlike her, my dog died on the front porch and bit one of the witnesses that tried to help her) and probably gave her a lot of difficulty on top of everything else. Rescuing a pet from a house fire isn't easy. They are panicked like everyone else and they will fight you.

I resent television shows, movies, and books for making the rescuing process seem so easy. Maybe she wouldn't have tried it if she had been correctly informed. But that's kind of wishful thinking, since she was the kind of woman who would risk her life for those she loves regardless.

Myth #4: During a house fire, the whole house usually burns down.

My whole house was destroyed, but according to the firemen I talked to, my situation was extremely rare. Usually house fires occur in only one room of a house and are put out before they get too far. Fires don't generally spread very fast, unless they have an accelerant causing them to do so.

But even if only one room in your house burns up because of the smoke damage it causes, it's usually unlivable to be in for awhile.

Also, cement, certain metals, and bricks can't burn. When a forest fire ripped through several houses in my area, chimneys and the foundations of the house still remained. Our whole garage was unharmed because it was made of solid cement. So writing about a house burning to the ground with nothing left but ash isn't realistic.

Myth #5: The only people who show up to put out a house fire are firemen.

It's ridiculous the amount of cars and trucks that were surrounding my house when I approached it. There were all kinds of people there: firemen, policemen, the red cross (to give us jackets and a meal),  gas men to turn off our gas, the electric company to turn off our electricity, a pastor to comfort us, an insurance company that refused to respect our privacy and tried to sell us stuff while we were crying, reporters taking pictures, animal control to remove the body of the dog, the coroner to remove my boyfriend's mom's body. I'm pretty sure I forgot some people and absolutely none of them will leave you alone. Most of them are nice (a police woman held me and talked to me gently when I screamed at the top of my lungs at seeing the house), but the reporters and insurance people are rude.

If your character comes home to a tragedy or enters a disaster area of any kind, it's unrealistic to write that only police men and/or paramedics showed up. Depending on if there are dead bodies or gas lines at risk, there could be a lot of other types of people there.

Myth #6: A fire can burn the same area twice immediately.

After a house has been rebuilt or foliage and trees have had a chance to re-grow, yes, the area can be burned again, but until that time, it's not possible. In fact, when dealing with forest fires, firemen usually burn the surrounding area to create borders that will stop the fire once it approaches. It's where the term "fight fire with fire" comes from. A heavily burned area can not be burned again. Fires are usually contained when they are surrounded by burnt forest. and therefore unable to spread any further.

Myth #7: As long as everyone makes it out of the house safely, your problems are over.

Dealing with the aftermath of a fire (even if you don't have someone close to you who died) can be just as difficult, if not harder than dealing with the fire itself. More than just emotions being high (people do and say things they don't mean).

The government gives you some help, but it's no more than a few days' worth of hotel rooms or a few meals and a couple of salvation army clothes at the most. That's not enough time to save up for a new house, let alone rebuild one, so mostly, you're left on your own. Not only that, but the money they give you, they track. I was told by them specifically that someone in a similar situation to ours, tried to buy a computer using the money and that they got angry at him for it. This upset me a lot because we had been stripped of all our possessions. We were not going to buy new computers with the money, but so what if we were? We lost our house and all our stuff. Is it really so horrible what we do with the money regardless of what it is spent on? I'm still trying to replace all the stuff I lost in the fire and my job (writing) actually depends on me having a working computer.

There's homelessness to deal with (you have to have some really supportive people in your life or a lot of money or you're going to be sleeping in the car), depression, and the sudden feeling that you are a million times poorer than you ever were before. You're stuck in one set of clothing and you know you smell like smoke and B.O. from not showering and sitting in front of the house for hours while you deal with the tragedy.

Not only that, but I got to be the subject of cruel gossip as well. I overheard a woman talking about my house and claiming that the cause of the fire was drugs with disgust in her voice like we deserved what happened to us. I've never been so angry before in my life. If it had been drugs, the dogs that sniffed our house would have found it and we would have been arrested. That didn't happen.

Myth #8: The firemen/detectives always know what happened later.

They walked through our house several times, got dogs to sniff for accelerants, and talked to eye witnesses, took pictures, but we still, to this day, have no idea how the fire started. The evidence of what happened burned up, the dogs found nothing, and the eye witnesses saw nothing. It's difficult not to get a resolution, but it happens during tragedies all the time.

We don't even know what my boyfriend's mom was thinking during her last moments or what she was doing. It's all a guess. Which is why if a character in one of your stories dies without leaving a note of his or her thoughts, then no one living is going to know exactly what he or she was thinking when it happened. It's a big mystery.

We will never know why my boyfriend's Mom didn't leave the house for sure. If she was panicked or angry at us for not being there. If she thought she could make it out. Only she knows/knew those things.

Myth #9: People help you go through your stuff once it's safe to go inside.

I've seen this happen so much on television that I thought this was the case. It's not true. They taped up our house, told us it was dangerous to go inside, and when we asked if someone would assist us going through the rubble, our requests were ignored. We waited for awhile before going in because the police tape was still on our house for a long time. We figured we had time to think about it. After all, a firemen fell through our living room, it wasn't a good idea to just rush in. We were wrong. What did survive the fire wasn't there anymore because our house had been robbed of what few possessions we had left. One day, we were looking through the window at our bedroom and seeing the drawers all neat and tidy like we left them and the next everything was flung around. I remember being so angry about it and screaming swear words, but people read about tragedies like this in the newspaper and see no locks on the house and decide to take advantage.

The whole thing is a gamble. You must decide whether it's more likely that you'll get hurt in your house and you shouldn't go inside or that it's worth the risk. And there's this constant paranoia that people will see you going through your house and assume you are one of the robbers.

Everyone who drives by stares and some people even stop or yell things at you. It makes you feel vulnerable having that house out in the open, like people can see your pain and enjoy watching it. I know that's not the case....for most people, but it still didn't feel good.

Myth #10: You have to touch a fire to be burned.

So untrue. Fires create heat and if you get enough of it, it can be hot enough to seriously injure a person. If your characters in your book are near to lava or something huge like a house burning down, they are going to feel the heat and might even have ashes raining down on them.

Whenever we had forest fires in our area, ashes would fall down from the sky like it was raining.


And if you're curious, since I've been evacuated because of forest fires on several occasions, it can be done in numerous ways. Sometimes it happens through word of mouth, your neighbors always know something and one of them has connections with fire men in some way, so when you see them pack, you'll know it's time to go and they'll probably knock on your door and let you know.

Other times, they call you on the phone with a message from the government or have police men drive by with blow horns telling you that you need to leave.

And other times, you were gone from the house and find out about the fire when you are on the way home and are stopped at a check point where police men tell you that you aren't allowed to enter the area because you are either evacuated or about to be evacuated. They usually let you go by to grab a few things quickly or escort you down to your house if you are a resident.

And another FYI, the smell of smoke is horrible and super strong. It gets in your clothes when you're near the house, it makes you cough, and debris gets on your clothes while you're going through the remains. It reminds me of the smell of smoked turkey, which I now find unappetizing because it reminds me of bad experiences.


SC Author said...

I am so, so sorry. I read this blog post, completely silent, and I can't imagine what you must have went through. The horror of seeing the body... I am so sorry. I really can't imagine how hard it would have been. I was a victim of myth number 1 before this, but then I just kept reading the post and I was shocked, reading your story. I am so sorry, and my thoughts go out to you.

E.B. Black said...

Luckily, we didn't have to see the body because I don't think I could have handled that. If the body is too damaged for anyone to positively I.D. it, they don't make you look at it. When a body is burned, they try to ID the person through dental records instead or through DNA tests.

Joyce Alton said...

Wow! Sorry to hear about your fire. Great information though. I learned something.

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