BLOOMINGTON - Julie Crowe woke to 10-inch flames around her chest. A burning candle she thought she blew out four hours earlier sat on a coffee table less than two feet away, as did a broken lighter that was also on fire. Flames had spread to the corner of the table, an ottoman and her blanket.
She tried to smother the flames with the burning blanket, but it draped the table and spread the fire. She tried to drag the blanket outside, but it caught under the front door and set her porch on fire.
She broke a side window and called to her dog. But Rock, her one-year-old Rottweiler-golden retriever mix, fled into the house when a firefighter neared.
Crowe said firefighters arrived quickly the morning of Nov. 12, but her house at 807 1/2 N. Morris Ave. went up "like a matchstick." She escaped with burns to her hands and singed hair, but flames gutted her home, reduced decades of art to ash and killed Rock, her pure white cat Rere, and her kitten Gigi.
Crowe, a stone carver, had been working late and fell asleep about 4 a.m. on her couch, where she slept because of back pain.
"Just as I felt I was dozing off, I leaned forward to blow out the candle," Crowe said. "But I was ready to doze off, so when I went back, I closed my eyes."
She hopes her story will inspire others to exercise care with candles, have fire extinguishers at the ready and make sure they have homeowners' insurance. Her insurance was paid, but she will still spend thousands rebuilding her home, she said.
"I think I will learn a lot from this and hopefully help some people take some home precautions that may save some people's lives or save their home," Crowe said.
Fire officials said the risk of house fires increases during the winter, particularly during the holidays.
"On average throughout the nation, more fire-related deaths happen from December through February," Bloomington Fire Lt. Eric Vaughn said. "And most of that is that we close off our houses, we're turning on our heating equipment. And some of that is because of the holidays - our decorations and so on."
Candles need to be used in areas clear of combustibles, including Christmas decorations and curtains, Vaughn said.
Live Christmas trees can become "extremely combustible" if not sufficiently watered, Vaughn said. Frayed cords on strings of lights, extension cords wrapped beneath furniture, and overloaded power outlets can also start fires.
Vaughn said seemingly innocuous decorations can be risky, such as a potpourri decoration he found at a craft fair. A mason jar filled with potpourri and white Christmas lights put off pleasant light and a nice smell, he said, but the combination of lights and dried leaves and twigs "is a perfect example of combustibles and heat getting together to form a really dangerous mix."
Crowe said she will rebuild her home, but she lost a two-foot stack of papers with artwork she used for carving rocks, wood-block prints and clothing she acquired while serving in Okinawa in the U.S. Marine Corps, irreplaceable canvas art prints and family photographs.
Crowe can barely stand seeing what remains inside her house.
"It's just a lifetime of sentimental things that meant the world to me that cannot be replaced, ever," Crowe said. "And then the loss of, basically, my family. My pets - they were everything to me."
The interior walls are coated with soot. The floors are covered with a layer of ash. Crowe has had her pets' remains cremated.
"You just don't think it's going to happen to you, and candles seem so innocent," Crowe said. "But, you know, I didn't get it blown out and it burned my house down within seconds."
- Keep space heaters at least 3 feet from combustible materials.
- Don't crumble extension cords or wrap them tightly; check appliance and extension cords for fraying or cracking; and make sure circuits and outlets are not overloaded.
- Carbon monoxide can enter a home if a furnace or water heater is not properly vented. Install a CO detector and make sure your smoke detectors work.
- Keep Christmas trees well watered, keep candles away from combustibles and keep children away from candles.
- Make sure chimneys and flues are open and there is no soot or unburned particles built up in chimney or flu walls; build-up can allow CO to seep into the home or cause a chimney fire. Burning wrapping paper or boxes in the fireplace can build up large amounts of soot.
- Don't use furnace rooms for storage. Nearby combustibles can cause a fire.
- Don't use gasoline to start a fire and make sure fireplaces have screens so embers won't pop out.
- Have a fire escape plan and a meeting place outside the home and make sure ice and snow won't prevent you from opening doors and escaping from a fire.
- Know how to use a portable fire extinguisher ahead of time if one is in the house.
- Call the fire department quickly, even if you have already put out the fire.
SOURCE: Local fire departments
Compiled by Greg Cima