You never know when a disaster or an emergency might strike. In that crisis moment, your preparedness and training—with your family and neighbors—might save your life and home.
Bill and I have been teaching disaster and neighborhood readiness for five years as a way to build connected, caring, and resilient neighborhoods. All our training was put to the test on January 4th, 2023, when a power surge ignited an electrical fire in our basement, threatening our lives and property.
We survived and saved our home because of our training and the support of our neighbors. I’m writing this blog to pass along lessons we learned, including what skills and preparation counted the most during this emergency. My hope is that you might learn from our experience and take steps to get prepared, to protect yourself and family, today. This could happen to you. Be ready for it!
This blog comes in two parts:
Part 1: Surviving the electrical fire
A loud boom and the lights flickered
The acrid smell of burnt plastic had filled the house. At Bill’s suggestion, I placed two fire extinguishers near the stairs at the top and bottom floors to make them easily accessible, in case we needed them. We searched for the sources of the stench, and unplugged sensitive devices such as computers, cell phones or anything else that could be damaged by power surges.
Bill checked the breaker box in the basement, finding that some of the breakers, including ones for the kitchen, had tripped. The acrid smell of burnt plastic was strongest in our day-basement, and it occurred to us that there might be a slight smokey haze. We did not see a fire, but the smell and haze concerned us.
I put on an N95 mask, and urged the others to do the same, especially in the basement.
Mysterious electrical symptoms
I had texted a few neighbors asking if they were experiencing similar problems. Nobody else was experiencing problems. The power issue was limited to our house. The lights continued to dim and become bright again. Some rooms went dark for a few minutes and then came back on. Turning the dial on the toaster oven caused the lights to dim in the kitchen. The microwave was dead.
Bill called PGE. He told them about our concerns and the strange electrical issues we were experiencing. The PGE representative explained that thousands of people were without power, and that their response may be delayed for a couple of days. Bill asked them to expedite a response, given the fireball on the line and the smell of burnt plastic. The fellow said he’d include this request in his notes. Of note, he did not tell us to turn off our power.
Evacuation to safety
I decided to go to the basement to check it again. The smokey haze was thicker. I shut off the power at the breaker box and yelled to Bill to call 911. Quickly, we evacuated with pets, purses, go bags, and phones. I was so grateful to have our go bags ready to go, including pet go bags, crates, and a fireproof bag with our important documents. We knew exactly where everything was for this type of emergency. All our preparation had enabled us to evacuate in less than 5 minutes with everyone and everything most important to us.
Five fire trucks arrived with alarms screaming. Fire fighters did a 360 check around house and then entered in full gear. Neighbors came out to find out what was happening. One neighbor, Stephanie Welgan, took our dog and cat back to her house. She gave us warm hats and gloves, so we could stay and answer fire fighters’ questions.
For over an hour, the fire fighters cleared the smoke with fans and searched for the source of the smoke, inside and outside of the house. They checked the walls for heat using a thermal imaging camera. They found no source for the smoke.
In the process of their work, they had turned the power back on. The fire chief told us in future to always shut down power at the main switch, not at the individual breakers, because tripped breakers can provide clues to how and where a fire starts.
We asked the fire chief if the house was safe to stay in. He said probably yes, upstairs, but he couldn’t guarantee it. He said we needed to get PGE and an electrician out to the house as soon as possible to diagnose the problem. He told us to call again if the smoke comes back.
Close the door to contain the fire
Remembering a lesson from one of our programs on fire safety in 2021, I shut the door to the basement where the smoke had originated. At that program, the firefighters had urged us to always sleep with doors closed, because that helps to contain a fire, giving us more time to evacuate, especially if a fire happens during the night. I figured the source of the smoke had been in the basement; keep the door shut down there!
Bill called PGE again and told the representative that the fire chief wanted them to expedite their visit to our house. This got their attention, finally. They promised to send someone out as soon as possible. I followed up with a call to an electrician and a former neighbor of ours, Igor Zelen, who owns Tesla Electric Company in Cedar Hills.
Power line break sparks a smoldering fire
Based on our description of the electrical problems we were experiencing—lights dimming and getting bright, acrid smell of wire and plastic burning—our electrician diagnosed the electrical problem over the phone. He said it was an “open neutral” in the powerline coming into the house, which means that the neutral line supplied from PGE was broken. With no neutral line, all circuits in the house deliver 240 volts. Most devices in the house run on 120 volts. These devices can overheat, resulting in fire.
Old power lines can break and ignite fires. Sometimes these fires can be smoldering in the walls, which can be virtually invisible except for a slow leak of smoke and a nasty smell.
“Evacuate now!” I yelled.
I could hear Geneva coughing. She told me later that she had dropped to her knees, crawled out of the room, just as she had been taught in her babysitter training class. She wetted a washcloth in the bathroom and covered her nose and mouth.
We left the house as quickly as possible and waited outside. We were glad the pets were already safe at the neighbor’s house.
Job well done
The fire trucks arrived again. Fire fighters used fans to disburse the smoke. They punched a hole in the wall near the charred outlet to verify the fire was out completely. The fire chief complimented our work at putting out the fire with the fire extinguishers.
The basement was a mess with extinguisher dust covering everything and broken drywall on the floor. The stench from the smoke permeated the house. The burnt outlet looked ominous. I could see parts of a cardboard box sitting near the outlet had been partially burnt. We had put the fire out in the nick of time. We were lucky this had happened while we were awake.
The fire chief told us it was not safe to stay at the house until the electric system is fixed and the house cleaned up from smoke damage. A PGE technician arrived as the fire chief was finishing up. He confirmed that the power line into the house was the source of the electrical problem, and the open neutral the cause of the damage. He pulled the electrical service meter to disconnect power from going into the house. The PGE technician created a claim number for the incident for us to report damages.
Neighbors and friends help
While this process of cleanup and recovery is time consuming and tedious, we feel lucky to have survived the fire, even as our preparedness helped us enormously. In Part 2 of this blog, “Lessons Learned,” we’ll share what preparations and training made the most difference in helping us to survive this fire, so that you can benefit from our experience. We’ll also share any lessons we learned along the way.
Karen Ronning-Hall, Disaster Preparedness Evangelist, living in beautiful Portland, Oregon, with hubby Bill, daughter Geneva, Bean dog, Thumper kitty, and Terry the turtle.