For a while, they called me Firestarter

Story by Grace Littlefield (pictured left), an American Red Cross volunteer based in Bemidji, Minnesota

As we enter the busy season for house fires, I can’t help but think of when I accidentally started one myself as a teenager. It happened so much faster than I ever imagined it could, and the terrifying experience has made fire safety and preparedness an extremely important part of my home life (and now as a volunteer with the American Red Cross).

Unlike the more common cause of house fires in our area (improper heating sources), though, the one I was involved in started because of…fried ice cream.

My older brother, Sam, went to Purdue in West Lafayette, IN for civil engineering. He and his girlfriend lived in an apartment complex not far from campus, which housed around 30-40 people. My parents, little brother and I went to visit him regularly.

Still in high school, I made it a point every time we visited to impress him somehow with new knowledge I’d gained over the months since I’d last seen him. I did not want him thinking that just because he was in college that I couldn’t whip out a few culturally interesting tidbits that would wow him and his girlfriend. During one visit, I insisted that I make fried ice cream for dessert. So culturally interesting, right? (I’d been making it constantly since the previous semester of Spanish class because I couldn’t cook much else for a particular assignment and come on, fried ice cream is good.)

For those not familiar with the process of making fried ice cream: yes, actual frying is involved. You have to heat your oil and plop a little ball of ice cream — coated in flour or cereal or whatever — in it, and then quickly take it out of the oil and put it on a plate. A few sprinkles, chocolate syrup, caramel, whipped cream, etc., and BOOM. Delicious fried ice cream.

You have to watch the oil, though. That was the first thing I’d learned when going over the recipe; if the oil gets too hot, it could start on fire and oil fires are not easily put out.

HA! How could anyone be so stupid as to not watch the oil? Even before learning how to make this, it was a no-brainer that unattended, burning-hot oil was a recipe for disaster. After dinner, I put the oil on the stove and talked and talked and talked with Sam and his girlfriend, trying to be cool and seem like I knew things about politics and literature. There was suddenly a smell that wafted in from the kitchen, which I thought was burning hair but was not.

After a few seconds, I felt like an idiot. And then I panicked. With all the hubbub of the evening, I had completely forgotten that approximately 30 minutes before, I had put two cups of oil into a pot and turned the heat on their electric stove all the way up (we’d finished dinner and I started late, so I was in a hurry to get it going). I ran into the kitchen, where the pot had caught entirely on fire and sparks were leaping from the pot to the walls, quickly turning the wallpaper brown then black. My parents and little brother ran around trying to find a fire extinguisher, which was not immediately found. Sam was trying to smother the flames with towels, which only caught fire themselves. The kitchen became too hot to stand in.

As I was turning to run out of the kitchen, I laughed out loud. There was a pan hanging on the opposite wall! I could just put the pan on the top of the oily pot and this whole stupid mess will be over!

It was a somewhat smart move, and it did work—for a moment. However, the walls were still burning and the oil on the stove was smoking so much that I knew I needed to get out of there anyway.

Someone had finally called the fire department and people in the other apartment units were spilling out onto the sidewalk because of the dense smoke.

My dad, however, was nowhere to be seen. We were freaking out, trying to figure out whether he was still inside or not. Within moments, we were given an answer: he ran out of the apartment building and threw the burning hot pot outside. (I was standing right there and was hit by some of the oil, which sucked, but he was later forgiven.) He had grabbed flour-coated washcloths WITH HIS BARE HANDS, scooped up the pot and sprinted outside to save the building and whoever was still inside. The pot continued to burn, and he fell to the ground as his hands bubbled up from the red-hot metal.

My nickname was “Firestarter” for a while after that.

There were a few things that could have gone better in this scenario, a few of which you have probably already thought of:

  1. DO NOT LEAVE OIL BURNING UNATTENDED. Stand in the kitchen. Have your dialogue partners join you, if you really need the company.
  2. Know where the fire extinguisher(s) is/are in your environment (even if you’re just visiting). Get a Class K fire extinguisher for your kitchen, too — a lot of people only have Class A/B/C fire extinguishers, which are useless for grease fires.  (We found this out the hard way after someone actually found the fire extinguisher and tried to use it.)
  3. Don’t run back into a burning building/don’t be a hero. My dad, despite throwing the burning pot outside and probably saving the building from completely burning down, did not need to run back inside. Not only did he severely burn his hands (he couldn’t work for two months because they melted, more or less), but the hot oil hit me, too. We also later found out that most of the apartment building’s tenants, hearing their fire alarms going off and smelling smoke, had already evacuated the apartment building, as per the emergency evacuation plan given to them on move-in day. The building, as is required by law, was covered by insurance and so was I; it would have been devastating for people who lost their homes, but at least he wouldn’t have put his life at risk.
  4. Keep a ton of baking soda in your kitchen, just in case. Baking soda neutralizes oil fires better than flour or other commonly-used baking ingredients.
  5. Have an emergency evacuation plan for your dwelling. Sam, bless his heart, was trying to put out the fire instead of directing people where they should go. Again, don’t be a hero — just stick to the plan and keep people’s safety at the forefront of your mind.

During the past six weeks or so, the American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region has helped more than 10o families affected by fires at home. Most house fires start in the kitchen. To get more house fire safety tips click here

Thanks Grace for sharing your story. We like the name Grace a lot more than Firestarter.

One Reply to “For a while, they called me Firestarter”

  1. Grace, your story about a fire due to cooking is not unusual. More than half of all fires start in the kitchen. The NFPA’s 2013 fire prevention week theme was “prevent kitchen fires”. I commend you on the attempt to smother the fire with a pan cover, this is one of the best ways to keep fire in a pan from spreading. Thankfully your father was not more severely injured; the risk of spilling hot oil, and the risk of respiratory burns was great. The fire service always recommends having an extinguisher for the incipient fire, and we no longer teach people to use baking soda. A past practice was a little ditty about white powder on a fire- but which one? Salt, flour, sugar, baking powder, baby powder, gold bond powder, or baking soda? Because of this confusion – and the increased risks – please use a lid to cover a pot, an extinguisher when reasonable, and get out and stay out of that dangerous, toxic environment. Firefighters will do the job.


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