A Fire Below
On the afternoon of May 22, 2022, Clarence Weber and his family stood outside the Rochelle, Illinois home he has lived in for 41 years and watched as local firefighters arrived and starting putting out a fire raging from the basement. Clarence says it was the smoke that he remembers most; thick, dark that he couldn’t see through and toxic, especially after he got a few whiffs of it.
Clarence had heard a small explosion in the basement followed by the high-pitched tone of two smoke alarms going off. At first, he used a fire extinguisher to attempt to put out the fire growing in the basement but soon realized it was getting too big too quickly for the small hand-held extinguisher alone to smother.
“All I saw was flames that I thought I may have been able to put out but the things that were on fire became toxic smoke immediately,” Clarence remembered.
He quickly got himself and his wife, daughter and granddaughter out of the home safely. The four pets of the family including two dogs, a cat and a lizard also all got out with the help of of the firefighters.
Smoke Alarms Above
Just eight days before, on May 14th, 2022 Clarence and his wife had been at home when a knock at the door revealed several volunteers offering to install some new smoke alarms in the house at no cost. They considered if their current alarms were sufficient but determined they had to be at least 20 years old and likely outdated technology, so they welcomed the volunteers.
“I saw it as a gift,” he said. “As a homeowner for many, many years there’s so many different things you keep up on and you’ve got to remember and sometimes the files get crowded [in your mind] ….did you change that battery?”
Red Cross volunteer Jan Fulfs and a partner volunteer from the city of Rochelle installed two 10-year smoke alarms and reviewed some home fire safety information with the family as part of the national Red Cross initiative “Sound the Alarm” where volunteers canvas neighborhoods across the country providing fire safety education and installing new, free smoke alarms.
“I saw it as that, something brand new for me that I didn’t have to pay for at my own cost to upgrade it to brand new technology. That caught my ear right there and it had a ten year battery life,” he said.
Clarence says he feels grateful to have had the new smoke alarms, unsure if the old ones would have gone off in the same situation or if the family had been asleep when the fire started in the basement, where fires often burn for a while undetected.
During the fire, paramedics, firefighters and neighbors arrived to help including a pair of Red Cross volunteers; Tracy and Tony Bustos, a husband and wife team from Freeport, IL. The Red Cross provided emergency financial assistance, basic essential items, medication refills and connections to many resources to make sure the family had what they needed while dealing with the aftermath of a home fire.
Though mostly contained to the basement, much of Clarence’s house was damaged by either fire, heat, smoke or water including many of the family’s materials related to hobbies. Through it all, Clarence maintains that his whole family and all their pets are safe and he’s thankful for the outpouring of support from the community.
“This little fire is just a bump in the road. We’re blessed at the response and all the things that have fallen into place.”
Rochelle Fire Department Chief Dave Sawlsville says having working smoke alarms and knowledge of multiple ways to escape your home could be the critical difference for families who experience a home fire which is why partnering with the Red Cross for “Sound the Alarm” aligned with their goals for the community. He says it was “eye-opening” to see how many families did not have smoke alarms that worked or did not have any at all.
“Today’s fire house fire is so much different than the house fire of ten years ago or 15 years ago. It’s it’s so much hotter and so much faster and and the black smoke is so much thicker, you know, that it’s it’s an entirely possible for you to get turned around in your own house and that’s the message we’ve been trying to tell people,” Chief Sawlsville said.
The Rochelle Fire Department and the Red Cross continue to install smoke alarms, a small device that can increase a person’s chances of surviving a home fire by 50%. In the event of a fire, you may only have 2 minutes or less to get out of a home.
“It makes a difference; it could have been my entire house without them and possibly the loss of a life or a pet,” Clarence said.
Clarence and his family are staying with a relative until they can move back into their home and says he is “thankful for not only the gift of the smoke alarms but the relief that was brought forward immediately,” he said. “It raised my level of belief in humanity quite a bit that day and the following weeks after that; all the surrounding people and the support from this incident has been overwhelming and I’m grateful, very grateful.”
To learn more about the “Sound the Alarm” initiative or to get involved as a volunteer with the Red Cross, visit www.redcross.org/soundthealarm
Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager Holly Baker