Monday, September 28, 2009

Don't yell "fire" in a crowded theater unless you're sure

The other night, I was sitting at the dining room table and happened to glance out the window. Across our back yard I could see the back window of a house on the next street over.

"Oh, someone has a fire lit," I commented to Jack.

"I was wondering why it smelled like smoke," he replied.

I could clearly see the flames through their window, and idly thought what a coincidence it was that I was at just the right angle to see their fireplace.

Then I looked harder. Those were awfully big flames, and from where I was they seemed to be filling the whole window of the house across the way. I couldn't see much else of the house, since there were trees and fences in the way. "Huh, that's weird."

Jack came over to look. "Wow, that's a pretty big fire."

Then I saw the windowsill start to glow reddish orange, and skepticism started to change to panic. "Um, I don't think that's in their fireplace."

"I don't either. What if there's someone inside? We'd better call the fire department."

So he did. Since we didn't know the address of the house, we gave them the name of the street it was on, as well as our address, for reference. When he hung up the phone, he went out to go drive by the house to see what he could see.

After he left, it occurred to me to go into the back yard to see if I could make anything out better. So I padded across the grass in the dark, and peered through a gap in the fence.

The only fire there was a fire pit in their back yard, a good ten feet from the house. There were no flames leaping in the window. There was no windowsill glowing red-hot. There was just a cozy urban campfire, with the kids likely just inside, impaling marshmallows on sticks.

And then I heard the sirens.

Three or four enormous fire trucks had pulled up onto the street. Our street, not the next one over. In front of our house. The lights were flashing and the sirens wailing..... and alllllll the neighbors were out on their front porches, bewildered and wondering what was going on.

It was kind of surreal. I walked back around to the front of the house, swallowed hard, and stood on the driveway as three large firefighters in full gear got out of the trucks and came toward me.

Now, just try explaining that you called the fire department because of a neighbor's cookout, without feeling stupid. Try leading several firefighters through your back yard to peer through the gap in your fence (while still feeling really confused as to how you could have been so, so mistaken). I was just glad it was dark enough that no one could see how red my face was.

To their credit, they were really nice about it. I kept apologizing, and they kept saying things like, "That's okay," and "Probably when they first lit it, the flames looked really high," and "They do have some candles in their window." Then they called in and explained that it was a false alarm, got in their trucks, and drove away.

And I went upstairs and shut all the drapes that were still open, and hid my face and hoped I would never run into any of the neighbors for the next month.

(It wasn't until Jack came in and we looked out the window again-- where it still looked remarkably like the house was on fire-- that we realized our mistake. It was a reflection in the window. We were just at the right angle to see the leaping flames of the back yard fire reflected in the dark glass. And the metal windowsill was glowing red... with a blurry reflection of the red-orange fire.)

So, thus ends this cautionary tale. The moral of the story is.... if you think your neighbor's house is on fire, feel free to call the fire department, but you might want to check from another angle first.

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