A forgetful moment and a fire in the kitchen

May 27, 2017
Mike Leggett
The author’s kitchen was charred by a grease fire from a cast iron skillet. MIKE LEGGETT PHOTO

I’ve grown old and forgetful, and we are starting to pay a price for it.

By “we” I mean Rana and me, along with anybody else who happens to glide into our orbit. It’s embarrassing and stupid, at times, like when I tried to burn down the house a few weeks ago.

The event of which I’m speaking occurred April 30, a Sunday afternoon, normal and without anything else to distinguish it except it was a sunny spring day.

I was doing nothing special until Rana came to ask me a favor. She wanted to know if I would clean the grease out of one of my cast iron skillets. These are some of my most prized possessions, dating back to the beginning of my dad’s mother’s marriage in the early part of the last century.

She had wanted me to make her some hot-water cornbread earlier that week, and I had used Crisco (like my mother would have) as the grease. I had let the grease cool on the back of the stove and needed to get rid of it.

Rana knows I like to clean my own cast iron, and so she asked that I do that then. I needed to let the grease heat up and soften a little so I could pour it out, and so I put it on the stove to heat for a minute or two.

Then I left the house to walk. I was almost a mile away when the first ambulance went by, followed by a couple of firetrucks and another ambulance.

I had my phone and was talking with a friend, wondering aloud where all the commotion was in the neighborhood, when my neighbor Clayton Smith, a longtime emergency medical services worker, pulled up in his pickup. “You have a fire at your house,” he said.

That’s when I remembered the grease on the stove and started cussing. Clayton told me to climb in his pickup, and off we went back to the house. People were going in and out of the house, from which was pouring thick, gray smoke.

Rana was outside with my dog Ceilidh and signaled me over to her. “You need to take her,” she said. “She’s afraid of all the trucks, and I’m afraid she might try to run back into the house.”

“I was in the bedroom when I heard all the smoke alarms going off,” Rana told me. “I walked out toward the kitchen, and I could see flames going up to the ceiling. I knew not to put water on the fire but the only thing I could think of was to put some towels on the fire and try to smother it.”

The flames were too intense, though, and burned right back through the towels. The 911 operator told Rana to get out of the house. Right then.

I took the dog from her and put Ceilidh in my truck and began looking around for someone to take me inside to see the damage. The firefighters, meanwhile, were starting to run fans through the house to clear the smoke. One of them came outside with my skillet and dumped it on the porch as he turned a hose on it to cool it down.

Neighbors Lee and Cathy Bullard and Trey and Fiona Carpenter walked up and began consoling Rana and me, and that took a lot of pressure off both of us. Trey and I went around to the back door to let the firefighters into that part of the house, and we could see the kitchen area burned black and smoking. It was all melty and deformed in there.

The smoke was terrible and was curling up around all my deer mounts, not to mention going upstairs into those bedrooms and offices. The fire was out by then; one of the emergency guys had hit the stove with a CO2 extinguisher and put it out.

By then, the emergency crews were checking to make sure no fire was burning inside the walls or up into the ceiling and toward the second floor. The cabinets over and around the stove were black, with drops of varnish leaking down. It looked like pine sap.

Everybody was telling me that it wasn’t that bad and that we should consider ourselves lucky that nobody was hurt and none of the dogs had gotten hurt either. Rana said: “Baby, don’t worry about it. We’re all OK, and we can fix the house.”

Then Rana began feeling a little shaky from inhaling smoke, and her blood pressure spiked, and she had to go to the hospital for the night. I picked her up the next morning, and we went back to the house with an insurance adjuster and a restoration and cleanup company called Blackhill.

Blackhill called in CRDN, a commercial cleaning company from Waco, and they picked up all our clothes, the bedding and my mounts and skins, and hauled them off for cleaning.

We have started picking out new cabinets and countertops and a stove and refrigerator and waiting for the machines to pull all the smoke smell out of the house. Not to mention the daily parade of jobs that have to be taken care of to get the house cleaned and renovated, going to the bank, feeding cows and keeping things running in the rest of our lives.

But that’s not the end of the story. That evening I checked into a hotel in Burnet (where we’ve been ever since the fire) and tried to get some sleep. At 2:30 a.m. all the alarms in the building began screaming that there was a fire somewhere on the premises.

I dressed and went outside, leading Ceilidh on her leash, and walked into a group of the same firefighters who’d been at my house a few hours earlier. They were looking at me like I was an alien, and I was trying to say, “Not my fault, guys.” Turned out to be nothing, and we all went back to bed.

I may never cook again, but one thing is for certain: I won’t ever leave a pan on the stove, for any reason.