Opinion: A house fire changed my life. Here’s how two minutes could help save yours


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That’s why I didn’t think much of it when I saw smoke hanging in the air beneath the shades of our oversized floor lamps.

It was January 2020 and our two boys were sound asleep. Like most winter nights, my husband and I would build a fire, sit in front of our fireplace and chat about our day.

When I glanced over and saw the smoke, I didn’t panic. Instead, my reaction was the complete opposite. I was annoyed, thinking, “Now what?!”

Although I wasn’t frantic, I did have an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I like to think my mother’s instinct kicked in. I went upstairs to check on the boys, but I feared waking them; as any parent knows, you never wake a sleeping baby. I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary other than a faintly odd smell as I stood at the top of the staircase. After a few moments, I went back downstairs to the living room.

Thinking about that strange odor, I asked my husband if he would go check on our 6-month old son. He went into our 2-year-old’s room instead — a decision that ended up changing the course of our lives.

It was there he found our older son’s room filled with smoke. He yelled for me and I came bolting up the stairs. I was confused and still didn’t think we were in danger. You might find that strange, but the smoke detectors hadn’t gone off, we didn’t smell anything burning and we thought it was something faulty with the fireplace that we could remedy ourselves.

I took our son downstairs and gave him a bottle to keep him calm. Then I called my brother-in-law, who happens to be a home inspector. He told me that we might have a fire behind our walls and to call the fire department. I thought he was being extreme, but I took his advice and called 911.

The wall behind Chloe Melas' fireplace that caught fire.

When the dispatcher answered, I said I thought it was a minor issue and asked if the firefighters could turn off their sirens so as to not wake our neighbors. The man on the line laughed and told me that he could not do that, but the fire department and police would be at our home within a few minutes.

I took our son into the basement and turned on some cartoons. I tried to explain why a bunch of firemen walked into our living room, telling him how fun it was to have firefighters in our house. It wasn’t long before my husband joined us, carrying our baby boy in his arms. I was still thinking about how I was going to get the kids back to bed once the firefighters left.

I had no clue that our lives were about to change within a matter of moments.

“I found it!” bellowed one of the firefighters. They had been walking all over our house with heat-seeking detectors. The next thing I knew, several firefighters came into the basement and told me that we needed to evacuate the house — now. I kept saying, “But I don’t have any shoes on, my kids are in their pajamas, I don’t know where my pets are.”

Within seconds, I was outside in the dark, cold night, holding both of my kids.

About 10 minutes later, my husband joined us at our neighbor’s house with our dog. One cat was in our car and we were unable to find the other one that night. My husband, who is usually pretty stoic, started crying hysterically, repeating, “It’s gone, our house is gone!”

“What’s gone?” I said.

Following the fire, Chloe Melas' home had to be completely gutted due to the damage.

Looking back, I was completely in denial.

Meanwhile, firefighters were putting out a fire, which had made its way up our newly restored fireplace and behind the walls of our children’s rooms. The firefighters were breaking open the walls with axes and sledgehammers and pouring thousands of gallons of water into the house in an effort to save it.

That’s when it hit me. I became inconsolable.

My in-laws came and took the kids back to their house and I waited a few more hours at our neighbor’s until the fire was out. We were allowed back into the house to grab a few personal items.

There were several inches of standing water in our living room, the walls were broken open, the kitchen ceiling had collapsed, furniture was toppled over and water was pouring out of our A/C vents.

To tell you the truth, I was numb in that moment. The fire chief looked at us and said, “If you hadn’t gone into your son’s room, this would have been a very different weekend.”

That’s when it really sunk in. A few more minutes and my children would have succumbed to smoke inhalation. Who knows what would have happened to my husband and I if we had gone to sleep. It’s a dark reality that I have buried deep.

Although parts of my home looked fine, I didn’t realize that within a few hours, the smoke would permeate and ruin nearly everything that the flames hadn’t.

I filled up two suitcases with pictures, passports, birth certificates, jewelry, diapers and some clothes for my kids.

I walked out the door, not knowing when — if ever — we might return.

Chloe Melas with her husband Brian Mazza and their two sons a few months after the fire.

The coming days were a blur. My family, friends, co-workers and complete strangers stepped up to support us in ways I’ll never forget. It was a side of humanity I knew existed but had never experienced.

I kept replaying what could have happened in my mind. I clung to my boys. They were all I needed. As long as I had them, home was where they were.

Within two weeks, the home that we had meticulously renovated was completely gutted down to the studs. But thanks to the incredible firefighters, the structure of our house had been saved, along with all of our lives. And our cat? We found him terrified, but alive the morning after the fire when we went to survey the damage alongside a demolition crew and our insurance adjuster.

As it turns out, our restored fireplace had some cracks between the bricks, which allowed the flames to burn the wall behind it. We had no clue this was happening the few times we had used the fireplace until that fateful January night when that charred wall finally caught fire.

We moved back into our house last October. It is filled with things once again. But we are forever changed.

Looking back, I would have been more vigilant about the unusual smoke. I would have made photocopies of important documents and emailed them to myself. I would have had blankets, water, a pair of shoes and a change of clothes in my car. I would have learned more about our smoke detectors and how they function.

This is why I partnered with the American Red Cross’ Sound the Alarm initiative. I want to share what we experienced in an effort to help others be better prepared for the unexpected. As it turns out, people may have as little as two minutes to escape a home fire, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

I would like to encourage all of you to practice a two-minute escape drill, test your smoke alarms every month and change the batteries at least once a year. I would like to be able to tell you how to prevent a fireplace fire like mine, but the only advice I can give on prevention is to take extra precautions. Knowing what I now know, I would have had a home inspector check the fireplace after it was restored.

In 2019, an average of 10 people a day died in home fires in the US. Home fires claim more lives in a typical year than all weather-related disasters combined in the US. Oftentimes, the absence of smoke alarms, or faulty ones, are to blame.

In hindsight, I would have handled so many things differently. But since I can’t go back in time, I can help you prepare for the future. Take two minutes to make a plan and run a drill. It could save a life.

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