My Brush with this Island’s Eponymous Element

It was a typical lunchtime in our house – my daughters eating mac and cheese while I took a work call – when the smell of smoke hit me on a recent sunny Friday afternoon.

After ruling out the stove and quickly but calmly walking from room to room to check for the source of that uniquely alarming smell of a burning house, I opened the back door of my duplex to find the rear of our neighbor’s half of our house on fire – a trail of flames spreading from the deck up to the roof.

“I gotta go, my house is on fire,” I said before hanging up the phone, calling 911, grabbing the two girls and getting them out of the house. I told my first-grader, who’s particularly interested in the fire alarms at school: “This is not a drill!”

Up until that moment, I had never been in a house fire before in my 43 years on this Earth, but I had written about countless infernos in my two decades covering local news. We were lucky, relatively speaking – nobody was hurt, our house didn’t burn down, and we were back home in less than a week – but it was an eye-opening experience nonetheless.

The first lesson learned was that we have amazing neighbors – not counting the one who started the fire by carelessly throwing her cigarette on the deck. As we were fleeing our home, my neighbors were running toward it. They took the 2-year-old and 7-year-old across the street, calmed them down and gave them snacks and water.

After I ran back into the house to get our two dachshunds and cat – thankfully he picked an easy hiding spot on this fateful day – dread set in as we waited for the Sayville Fire Department to arrive to extinguish the flames. It was only a matter of minutes, but when your house is on fire, any amount of time feels like forever.

Another lesson learned is that when calling my wife to deliver the news that our house is on fire, it would be helpful to explain that the structure wasn’t fully engulfed. Without that context in our initial call, she assumed the worst while racing home. Of course, I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly and started the call by asking if she was free to talk, as if I was just calling to discuss dinner plans.

My wife arrived in time for the Suffolk County Police Arson Squad detective to determine that the fire was started by a cigarette – a hard-learned lesson for my kids on why smoking is a terrible habit. The Islip fire marshal fined our neighbor for improper disposal of a cigarette. But regardless of who started it, none of us could go home.

I had no idea that smoke exposure was something that could force you out of your home, find a pet-friendly hotel on a moment’s notice and hire a restoration company to detoxify your belongings and living space. We were also told we had to throw away all our food and wash every article of clothing we own, which for a family of four going on five, is a lot. Carcinogenic toxins don’t mix well with kids and pregnant women.

One thing I had seen before was the giant fans these companies bring in – that I remember visiting Sandy-flooded homes. But in our case, these industrial-strength blowers were brought in to help get the smoke smell out. Ironically, we were back in our home no longer than a day when smoke filled the sky again – this time from the Canadian wildfires. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me when I saw more smoke in the sky over our backyard. The restoration company left the contraptions in longer to help mitigate the added smoke smell on top of what we were already dealing with.

While we’re mostly back to normal, minus the lingering smell of smoke here and the weeks ahead of dealing with insurance, the neighbor’s side of our home remains uninhabitable and likely will remain so for months.

Much of the inside had to be gutted. The rear of that half of the house is covered with a tarp. The deck now has a giant hole where firefighters cut out the burned beams. Parts of the melted plastic railing still frame the charred remains of shrubs that had gone up in flames.

Looking back, the scariest lesson is how fast the flames spread in just minutes between when I spotted the fire and called 911 and when the firefighters responded. They really didn’t take long, but photos I took showing where the fire was when I found it versus how much more caught fire after I fled were startling. I shudder to think what would have happened had this fire broken out at night when we were all sleeping – who knows how badly it could have spread before we woke up.

All of which is an important reminder to make sure to properly dispose of your cigarettes, thank your local firefighters, and do make sure your smoke detectors are in working order!