Always plan ahead

Dec. 16, 2009

More than a year ago my husband and I were at home one Sunday morning when he noticed the back of our apartment was on fire. Faulty electrical wiring in the restaurant below had created a fire that was likely smoldering for hours before it spread to our apartment.

In the months that followed I had my first brush with homelessness. For three months we lived in several different hotels with all of our belongings and our two cats while the apartment was repaired. Yes we had a roof over head, but it was far from home. It was stressful. I struggled to communicate in French (we lived in Brussels at the time) with the dozens of contractors working to repair the building. Where we would be living from week to week was uncertain. It put a strain on our ability to do our jobs and on our marriage. It was no way to live. Yet, millions of people in the United States live in similar or worse conditions.

I was reminded of how close we came to serious injury or death this morning when I played the CD that had been in our stereo when our apartment caught fire. Even now, a year and a half later, it still smells like smoke.

This time of year is about celebrating and spending time with family and friends. But it is also a time when cookies could be forgotten in the oven; old Christmas lights could burn out and spark a dry tree; or unattended candles or space heaters could start a fire.

We did not have smoke detectors–there is no doubt in my mind that we would not have escaped had our fire occurred at night. So I am taking this opportunity to urge everyone to take a little time during the holiday season to ensure you have working smoke detectors (they should be tested every six months); that you have a plan to call for help and to escape (we did not even know how to call the Belgian fire department or police–it is not 911); that you have insurance for the unexpected; and that you have a fire extinguisher in your home just in case.

According to, each year fires occurring during the holiday season injure 1,650 Americans and cause more than $990 million in damage. Christmas Day is the peak day of the year for home candle fires. And minorities and the poor are disproportionately impacted by home fires.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper