We haven’t had many fires. However they have happened and not everyone has survived. No agent wants to say that. When you consider the number of properties we manage and the length of time we have been agents, the numbers of fires we have had has been few. But they are frightening with the speed they take hold and overwhelm. Our last fire was a month ago. The family had friends over for dinner. The young kids were playing together, talking flat-out, the young son of our tenant showing his friend his toys, both laughing and talking at the same time while adults sat and talked. Dinner was cooking.

The children went upstairs to the boy’s bedroom to grab another toy. No one thought anything of it. The visitors’ child came back downstairs and stood very quietly looking at his father. The father glanced at him and saw fear, intense fear, in his eyes. A quick question of “what’s wrong”?, revealed something terrible upstairs, but what precisely, was unsaid. Both sets of parents ran. When they got upstairs the curtains were alight, the bed cover was burning. The mother pulled the curtains down, tried to beat out flames on the bed linen. In less than a minute, the mattress was now giving off a thick smoke and she couldn’t breathe. She grabbed her son who was on the other side of the room, silent, frozen and got out of the room slamming the door behind her. Her baby was asleep in the cot in the main bedroom. She grabbed him as well and ran downstairs. The visitors had already phoned the fire brigade.

It is estimated they arrived 7 minutes after the adults realised there was a fire. The firemen rushed upstairs and opened the door to the bedroom. The heat had already blown out the bedroom window. The mirrored wardrobe doors had shattered and the plasterboard ceiling had turned to chalk from the heat, crumbling to powder and about to let the flames have full access to the roof timbers. When the firemen opened the bedroom door, the flames and heat that shot out into the hallway melted the smoke detector one and a half metres away into an unrecognisable plastic blob.

At that point, the fire was put out.

The cause? The son had got hold of their candle lighter, like those gas lighters you get at candle shops. He wasn’t trying to light things just wanted to show his friend how it worked and the really great blue flame that comes out. I know these tenants, they are good people as we often say. The son is not a bad kid, he loves to talk, he runs, he kicks balls, he’s happy.

They aren’t bad parents, he isn’t a bad boy.

People react in ways that rational thinking later on would suggest was not the best way to tackle a problem. I’m not an expert on fire, how it moves, its speed or the best way to fight it. I don’t dare think if the mother had not shut the door, because the damage to the upstairs section of the duplex would have been worse. Had she not realised that smoke was a far more dangerous to her and her family than just the flames and stayed fighting the fire any longer, it could have been a far different, sadder story.

Seven minutes was all it took though to change this property from a stable income earning,
well maintained duplex into a financial nightmare. The owners had a large mortgage on the property having bought it only 8 months earlier. The property was uninhabitable and the rent stopped at that point. Insurance covered the loss of rent and the repairs. I said at the beginning that not everyone has survived the fires we have had in property we manage. Smoke is the killer so often. In a house we were managing a family had an electric bar heater. It was knocked over onto some sponge rubber on the floor which quickly caught alight. The smoke filled the room so fast that the person in it was unconscious before they could get out.

Please, ensure you have proper full insurance. If you own a house, make sure you have an insurance cover that will cover the full cost of replacing the house. In strata titled units and developments, the law is that they must not only insure for the full replacement cost, but also allow an additional margin for cost rises. If you have a unit or townhouse or villa and rent it out, get good quality full coverage landlord insurance.

More importantly, have good quality smoke detectors in your property – ones that are hard wired in, with lithium 10 year batteries. Smoke detectors do not last forever. The cheaper ones need to be replaced more often and cost more in the long run than the high quality smoke detectors. The nightmare is not worth the cost if there is a fire and your detector isn’t working.