It was the night of Gasparilla 2022—the coldest night of the year so far in Tampa Bay. In their South Tampa bungalow, Johanna Sanchez enjoyed a family movie night with her husband and her three sons, Jonathan (then 7) and 4-year-old twins Zac and Xander. A fire crackled cheerfully in their fireplace while they hung out and was completely out by the time the family went to bed.
But shortly after they had fallen asleep, Johanna was woken up by Jonathan, who said he heard his brothers coughing and saw smoke pouring in from under the door. The couple leaped out of bed.
Despite the confusion and dawning horror, the Sanchez family managed to evacuate their house right away into the frigid night. As they did, the alarms began to go off, and they noticed smoke pouring out from under their house. Within 15 minutes, the block was swarming with firefighters.
Later, the Sanchez family learned that the fire was created when that night’s unexpected high winds caused the heat from the furnace to be transferred to a structural wooden beam in the house.
The family relocated to a condo for the seven months that it took to repair the damage to their home. It wasn’t easy to watch her sons share an air mattress in a crowded condo, but Johanna initially resisted going back to the scene of the fire. It was her boys’ love for their home that convinced her to make a fresh start there. She did her best to make the return fun for them by buying them new comforters and accessories for their bedrooms and making other changes, such as transforming her office into a bedroom for Jonathan.
The now 8-year-old had another positive come out of the experience: He received an award from the Tampa Fire Department for his heroic actions.
Although what happened to the Sanchez family was almost a fluke, Johanna still thinks its important that people know to inspect their fireplaces regularly and have a plan for if this type of disaster strikes. And if the worst does occur, she says it’s important to get whatever help you need to mentally overcome the aftermath.
“I think maintaining a positive mindset is key,” says Johanna. “We have to find the rainbow at the end of the storm, or it can eat at you in your heart.”
Here’s one very simple thing you can do to protect yourself from fire damage: close your door. According to the nonprofit Underwriters Laboratories, a closed door is one of the most effective mechanisms by which you can prevent death and damage. The organization says that there can be a 900-degree Fahrenheit difference between rooms separated by a closed door. With modern materials being so much more flammable than before, fire can burn quick and hot.
From the organization’s website, closeyourdoor.org, here are some additional tips for fire safety at home:
- Make sure there is a smoke alarm on every level of the home, and inside and outside each sleeping area. Check them monthly and change batteries on a regular schedule.
- Don’t run electrical cords under rugs, and check that they are not frayed or cracked. Plug appliances directly into the wall.
- Clean and inspect chimneys and furnaces yearly. Any furniture and other items that can catch fire should be placed at least three feet from fireplaces, wall heaters, baseboards and space heaters.
- Schedule regular cleaning for the clothes dryer venting system and ensure that the dryer lint filter is cleaned often.
- Clean your kitchen stove hood regularly and keep it vented to the outside.
Remember that if a fire ever does occur in your home, it will not be a calm and leisurely scenario. You will likely be panicked and unable to think clearly. That’s why it’s important to have plans A, B and C ready with your family, as well as a clearly understood meeting place.
Leave through the closest door, close it behind you and head to your meeting place. Call 9-1-1 right away.
If you can’t get to the door, leave through another exit such as a window. Head to your meeting place, call 9-1-1 and let them know you got out.
If you can’t get out, close the door, get as far away from the fire as possible and turn on the light. Use towels or cloths to cover the cracks under the door to prevent smoke from getting inside. If smoke is already coming in, open the window (starting from the lower pane first), and remain close for fresh air. Stay close to the floor. Call 9-1-1, tell them you cannot get out and use a flashlight or call out to draw firefighters’ attention when they arrive.
Once you are out, stay out!
Originally published in October 2022 of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.