It’s a no-brainer: If you smell smoke, call 911 | Ask Erin

It was supposed to cause a laugh or two, not catch our kitchen on fire.

For my son’s birthday, we thought we’d be clever and use trick candles. You know the ones — they relight after the birthday person blows them out, causing surprise and another round of wishing.

My daughter wanted to give one a trial run before pulling the prank on her brother.

And this is where I goofed.

I wasn’t in the kitchen with her when she lit the candle.

The candle didn’t relight after she blew it out and thinking it was faulty, she tossed it into the trash underneath the sink.

But apparently it did light — just not immediately.

I’d say 10 minutes passed before she yelled, “The trash is on fire.”

Sure enough, flames leapt from under the sink, and dark smoke began to fill the kitchen.

My husband and I grabbed the nearby fire extinguisher, and with shaky hands and beating hearts, extinguished the fire.

The plastic trash can melted onto the cabinet floor, leaving globs of hardened plastic. The inside of the cabinet door is scorched. But other than that, the fire didn’t cause much damage.

But, oh, there could have been.

My mind can’t help but play “what if” games.

What if my daughter left the kitchen and didn’t notice the fire? How long would it have taken for the smoke alarms to sound? What if we went out to dinner, like we originally planned?

Let’s revisit where I goofed.

Growing up, whenever I was asked to light the dining room candles, I used old-fashioned matches. I was taught that after blowing out the match, I needed to run it under water, listening for the telltale sound of the “Hsssss.”

My daughter, who has lit numerous candles, has always used a butane lighter. With a click of a button, the flame appears and disappears. She didn’t know to place recently lit items under water.

I should have taught her that.

And I should have been in the same room with her as she handled an open flame.

All this got me thinking about fire safety so I contacted Assistant Chief Luke Carpenter, fire marshal for the Bainbridge Fire Department, for advice.

There are three categories of fire. Class A involves paper, wood and trash. Class B involves flammable liquids and grease. Class C fires are electrical.

When purchasing fire extinguishers for the home, Carpenter recommends buying the all-purpose kind that can handle all classes of fire.

He also recommends having at least two all-purpose fire extinguishers. He suggested keeping one in the kitchen and one in the garage.

Good to know: Residential extinguishers are for single use. Once you use the extinguisher, you need to purchase another one.

Carpenter called smoke detectors the “cheapest insurance you can buy” and said they should be installed inside and outside of every bedroom. Newly constructed homes have strict codes regarding sufficient detectors. Older homes may only have one and in extreme cases, Carpenter has seen homes with none at all. And that is just not safe.

At around $12 each, smoke detectors can alert you to smoke and fire, giving you precious time to exit the house safely.

Good to know: Change batteries in smoke detectors at least once a year. As an easy reminder, the Bainbridge Fire Department recommends “Change your clock, change your batteries” to coincide with daylight saving time. And by all means, if your detector begins to “chirp,” change the battery.

Statistics show the visibility in a house can go from crystal clear to practically zero visibility in a matter of a couple of minutes. It’s important to practice an exit drill with your family. To simulate intense smoke, Carpenter recommends blindfolding family members and having them crawl out.

Good to know: Most homes have an abundance of plastic. Burning plastic gives off dark smoke, causing poor visibility and toxic vapors. Carpenter said the increase of plastics in the home has caused more deaths due to smoke inhalation than from pervious generations. This makes practicing an exit drill even more important.

CALL 911
This is a no-brainer, but if your house is on fire, call 911.

Good to know: Carpenter said even though we extinguished the fire ourselves, we still should have called the fire department. The reason? Sometimes fire can get into little areas not easily visible. The fire department knows what to look for and is specially equipped to make sure the fire is completely out.

When I said, “But I didn’t want to be a bother,” Carpenter replied, “Call us. We live to be bothered.”

— Ask Erin is a feature of Kitsap Week. Have a question? Write Ask Erin, Kitsap Week, P.O. Box 278, Poulsbo 98370 or e-mail