Tag Archives: fire

Photo Of The Day: Seriously Important Yet Smile-Inducing Graphic

An example of a serious but smile-inducing graphic was the neon sign we saw in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France that instructed wheelchair users what direction to proceed in if there was a fire in the museum. Mark said, “Not chariots of fire — wheelchairs of fire.” And in case anyone misinterprets that, he meant it in a wry and humour-filled manner — not a sarcastic or disrespectful manner.


Wheelchair and fire graphic showing evacuation route at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France


©Deborah Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
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A Year After A Near Disaster in France

Really??? 12 months??? Where did a year go?

Last year at this time, we were quite literally saving the house of our friend Polly up in Normandy from burning down after an electrical fault in her freezer out in the storeroom set the garage and storeroom ablaze. Mark and I were very happy that we happened to be housesitting for her whilst she was in the UK for Christmas week with her two darling girls.

She mentioned us this week in a post on her own website — “From The Ashes Of Last Christmas — One Year On!”

What Polly didn’t remember was that I always sleep with earplugs, but I had felt uneasy all afternoon and evening. As I was headed off to sleep, and Mark was already soundly asleep beside me, something told me to pull my earplugs out and listen. I did and I heard a “Bang-bang-boom!” sound. Thinking someone was breaking into one of the gites, I awakened Mark — and then Polly has told you the rest of the story including the fact that Mark stumbled into electric fences as he raced next door to the neighbouring farm.

And what was the sound that I heard? It was the racks of chutneys and wine and champagne in Polly’s storeroom exploding!

The firemen — pompiers — arrived quickly and came from several towns all around. They were brilliantly efficient and they stayed until the wee hours of the morning to make certain that every last spark was out.

Firemen on the job in France


So here we are, 12 months later, and dreadful insurance ‘surprises’ notwithstanding, Polly’s project is well and truly under way and she’s bound to have a wonderful new garage, storage room, and loft back in working order by this time next year.

Merry Christmas to you and the girls, Polly!

©Deborah Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
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Fire In The Night In France

Les Pompiers arrived before midnight — 3 large firetrucks and 2 smaller vans — with approximately 18-24 firemen and 2 gendarmes. Such a frightening event on the night of Solstice and it could have had an even more devastating results. Thank heavens for their prompt response.

Firemen on the job in Moyon, France

We are in Normandy right now staying in one of the two stone gites (cottages) that the owner Polly has created out of old stone barns on the property. Polly and her two young daughters are across the Channel in England and we have been looking after her 2 dogs, 3 cats, and the cluster of buildings.

Shortly after 11:30 PM last night, we went upstairs to bed and Mark was already deeply asleep as I slid under the duvet. But something was wrong. I had gone to bed feeling quite uneasy after thinking I heard someone crunching around on the gravel outside. I realise now that what I had heard was the crackling as the fire took hold. And I can just about pinpoint when the fire really gained momentum because a few minutes after 11 PM, the wifi went off here in our gite. The power stayed on in the gites and the barn next door because we are on a separate power box, but the wifi was being broadcast from the big house.

I was just about to put my earplugs in and go to sleep when something made me hesitate. I held my breath and listened intently and within a minute I heard several loud booms. I shook Mark again and again quite briskly to rouse him from that deep slumber and told him that I thought someone was breaking into the gite next door. He listened as we both heard another loud boom and his feet hit the floor, he quickly slipped into his clothes, and I told him to be very, very careful. I put my robe and slippers on and was part of the way down the stairs when he came storming back through the door screaming, “The big house is on fire!”

I raced out after him into the pitch black night and as soon as I came around the corner of the large stone house, I could see an eerie orange glow lighting up the night. I stood there in the dark sobbing angrily because my British-based mobile phone wouldn’t go through to the fire department as Mark ran across the field to the farmer’s house on the next property, pounded on the door, and somehow communicated to the couple that the house was on fire and they needed to call the fire department. The wife understood what he was saying because, blessedly, she spoke a tiny bit of English.

As Mark was cutting back across the fields between the properties, he stumbled into an electrical fence and got a strong jolt. So he is dreadfully sore and aching today. And I abruptly stopped crying, ran back into the gite and upstairs, threw on some clothes, and began packing our rather large quantity of cameras, electronics and clothing in case the fire jumped the roof and our gite became engulfed in flames. Then we both went outside and stood with the neighbours, waiting for what seemed like a very long time before the first response crew arrived, and then watching the blue lights coming down the road, the courtyard fill with large red trucks, and men begin unfolding water hoses and spraying the house with soap saturated water.

Firemen tearing out the burning roof rafters


Firemen cutting out roof rafters with chainsaw whilst dousing roof with water

The wonderful farmer and his wife from next door bundled up in warm jackets and brought over coffee, plastic cups, and cubes of sugar to serve the firemen. We went into the gite, figured out how to use the drip coffeemaker since we normally use a stove-top Italian coffee maker for our own daily use, and we took a second pot of coffee and a bottle of milk outside for top-ups for les pompiers.

Neighbours with coffee for the firemen

It was almost 3 in the morning before the wonderfully efficient firemen finished their last walk through of the house, rolled up their hoses, and went home to their own warm beds. We are so grateful for their prompt response and their thoroughness in staying until every last place, both upstairs and downstairs and inside and outside, had been checked and rechecked. Mark asked if they were all volunteers and the farmer’s wife said yes — they were. How astonishing to see such a large turnout on that winter night from men who gave freely of their time and effort because they felt compelled to give back to their own community.

Exhausted firemen rolling up the hoses just before 3 AM

Here are shots of the damage that I took a couple of hours ago. We have heard from the firemen that the fire was within inches — INCHES — of entering the main house. It’s a huge place with lots of very flammable timber beams and it would have raced through there at lightening speed.

Burned out storeroom and collapsed roofline


The gutted storeroom & garage directly attached to the house

We are feeling quite shaky today, rather fragile to be truthful, but oh so grateful that we were here. The house would have burned to the ground if no one had called it in — and the farmer’s wife told me that they were watching television and had the volume on so high that they never even heard the sound of the crackling timber and the exploding bottles of champagne and chutney.

The fire chief told me that even a few more minutes would have meant that they couldn’t save the house since the storeroom and the garage were hard up against the main body of the house. And thank god/goddess/universe/whatever that the HUGE gas tank on the other side of the garage didn’t explode from the heat and flames! Mark said that when one of the firemen saw it, he looked quite startled and told Mark to move away quickly.

Just minutes before the firemen arrived last night, I briefly stepped inside the entry hall since I knew that the dogs were outside and Mark had safely locked them in the other gite. But as I peered into the smoke filled hallway to see if any of the cats were there, I looked to the left and the pet door was glowing with a bright orange light behind it from the roaring flames on the other side. It made me go weak at the knees momentarily and I hastily went back outside. The pet door melted and is completely missing and we are completely agog that the flames didn’t get sucked into the house.

Pet door where flames could have been sucked into the house -- but weren't!

These shots below show you just how large and lovely the main house is. And in the second photo you can see the yet-to-be-rendered side wall of our gite with that vulnerable timber in the upper section. All of that would have been awash in flames quite quickly if the main house had caught fire, so I was quite correct to begin packing in case we needed to make a speedy exit.

Polly's house -- still intact


Front view of Polly's house with vulnerable gite end visible

We laugh rather often about my ‘beagle senses’ of smell and hearing and I know that it is sometimes annoying when I hear things or smell things that no one else notices until I point them out. This was an instance where I was thrilled to have both heightened physical senses and a strong psychic sense that had been telling me for days that something was not quite right.

The house is intact even if it smells eerily of smoke and all 3 cats and 2 dogs are alive and well.

Blessings abound — and we are grateful!

©Deborah Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
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Fearful Of Fire

It was a stereotype in many ways — but a lovely one. The symmetrically proportioned colonial house with four white columns nestled attractively amongst the green fields and apple orchards.

The bright and happy memory of my childhood home is overshadowed at times by another memory. That darker memory is a vision of a snow-clogged road out front where no vehicles could pass, my younger sisters bundled up in snowsuits as Mother held their hands and dragged them through the snow drifts up the long driveway and across the road to the neighbour’s house, and my own backward glance at the flames shooting up through the center of the roof. In a very short time, all that was left standing of the 2 story white house was the living room wall that had the chimney still attached and a tiny portion of the front facade.

All of those fearful memories came racing back last night as we had a chimney fire in the wood burning stove in our gite here in Normandy. At precisely 1:30 in the morning, I snapped awake, sat up in bed, and said aloud to Mark, “I smell smoke, toxic smoke. Something is wrong!” Every hair on my body was standing up as I maneuevered down the steep stairs from the bedroom into the lounge room and a sickening smell overpowered me. It took rather a lot of self-control to not vomit all over the tiled floors.

An hour passed as we opened the glass French doors and all of the windows, vented the cottage with freezing air, then closed it all back up and tried to go back to sleep for all of 10 minutes. It was almost immediately apparent that the house was quickly refilling with the toxic fumes.

Doors and windows were flung open again. We ventured out into the icy night, stood on the patio and stared up at the chimney pipe, and I exclaimed to Mark, “That’s liquid tar running down the sides and glistening!” For whatever reason, a build-up of creosote in the chimney had caused both the excessive heat and the dreadfully toxic fumes.

Mark went out to the garden for the wheelbarrow, shovelled every single bit of logs and coals out of the wood burner, and placed the smouldering load out in the gravel of the driveway. Back inside in the now ice cold house, we cuddled up together under a blanket on the sofa and watched a movie until almost 5:30 in the morning because we were too agitated to sleep.

My brain stores rather a lot of facts — some useless, some not. But it serves me well when one of those facts bubbles to the surface and I remember some essential item or past episode that will help me in the current circumstance. I had seen 2-3 chimney fires in the past and smelled the sickeningly acrid tang of burning creosote. All of that came flooding back and I knew that we could have died in the house that night.

Glowing flames in the wood burning stove

Mark, in his quiet and purposeful way, just went about sorting out the danger once he realised that I was quite correct about what was unfolding. And this morning he got up on a ladder outside, took all of the chimney pipes apart, and spent several hours cleaning out the entire mucky-oily-black mess.

We’ve had a quiet afternoon because we both feel quite shattered from the stress and lack of sleep. But there is one more thing to mention.

My mother died in the late 1980s, so yes, she has been gone from this world for quite a long time. But she was here last night quite briefly. She spoke a mere two sentences in my head and these were right on the edge of being brusque.

“You listened didn’t you? You’re fine.”

And then she was gone.

©Deborah Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
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