One of the original four Aristotelian elements, fire is as finely double-edged as any sword. When controlled, it can be friendly, warm and cozy. It can be harnessed for power and heat. It gives and sustains life.
But when unleashed without restraint, it can be ferocious, destructive and catastrophic. It combusts and consumes indiscriminately. It causes death and bereavement.
There's hardly a household subject that Emily Dickinson didn't lend her poetic genius to, and fire is no exception:
Ashes denote that fire was;
Respect the grayest pile
For the departed creature's sake
That hovered there awhile.
Those verses capture the feeling I have every time I see the burnt wreckage of a house--and I happened upon such a sight just this week. It's an old cottage-style place in Walnut Ridge, painted gray with gables and white trim, built on a front street facing the railroad in the old fashion. I hadn't heard about any fire, and was shocked and dismayed to see the collapsed roof and charred timbers inside as I drove by.
Insurance adjusters and analysts calculate costs in dollars, but the loss of "home" is inestimable. Memories, dreams and trifles of sentimental value are neither insurable nor replaceable. Most fires are unexpected, and despite great strides in homeowner education and escape planning, many are still unprepared when a fire erupts at home.
As a lover of grand old houses and architecture, I've come across many lost mansions in my books, studies and travels that had succumbed to flames. One of the most famous and iconic historical sites commemorating the fearsome aspect of fire is the Windsor Ruins in Mississippi, just a few miles southwest of Jackson, near Port Gibson.
All that's left of the enormous plantation home built in 1861, and destroyed by fire started by a cigar's ash in 1890, are its 29 colossal columns. Standing as sentinels marking the residence's floor plan footprint, they soar 40 feet high and are topped with iron Corinthian capitals.
Almost every Arkansas community has lost historic properties to fire at one time or another. I still remember the sad loss of a Lawrence County landmark when the winter home of author Alice French, built in 1896 on the banks of the Black River near Clover Bend, burned to the ground in 1986.
People who know me know how much I love a roaring blaze in the fireplace. Part of my autumn ritual is preparing for fire season: ordering seasoned wood and having my chimney inspected and cleaned.
I'm acutely aware that chimney fires are more common than clock chimes during the fall and winter months. A fireplace or chimney figures as the culprit in roughly three out of 10 house fires in the U.S., and half of all heating-related fires occur during December, January or February.
Fire statistics, in general, are frightening. It's a tribute to both firefighters and fire protection professionals that reported fires in America in 2022 were down by 50 percent since 1980, but there were still more than half a million structure fires last year.
The tragic tally of those fires might surprise you. A fire department responded to a home fire every 88 seconds in 2022. Home fires claimed nearly 2,800 lives, and caused $15 billion of direct property damage.
They also hold close to the 80-20 rule: Representing only 25 percent of all fires, home fires cause roughly 75 percent of civilian fire fatalities and injuries.
And unlike the drop in fire incidents over time, last year's fatality rate per 1,000 reported home fires for one- and two-family homes was 14 percent higher than in 1980. The average dollar loss per home fire is also up by almost double.
Smaller communities face greater risk from fires, too, when measured per 1,000 population. Towns with fewer than 5,000 people have rates two to three times higher on average than cities.
Even more common than chimneys are cooking fires. Half of all fires in the home start that way, and yet they are highly preventable. Simple steps, like keeping stovetops clear of anything that can catch fire and having lids nearby to smother pans, greatly reduce the risk.
For chimneys, buildups of creosote (the natural sooty product of woodburning) and bird nests are frequent fire hazards; both are easily remedied with an annual cleaning right before burning. A good chimney sweep will also inspect your flue and firebox.
Adhere to best fireplace practices: Only burn hardwoods and never use flammable liquids to start a fire.
Space heaters, especially older ones that don't have automatic shutoffs when overheated or tipped, are high fire risks. And, of course, candles and smoking cause far too many fires through carelessness each year--the latter being the leading cause of civilian home fire deaths.
Finally, remember that in addition to smelling wonderful and adding natural beauty to decorations, live Christmas trees and garland can become very combustible as they dry out. Take precautions to make sure they're kept away from heat sources--a festive pine swag on a mantel drooping over a wood-burning fireplace could spell trouble.
Enjoy fire season! But please be safe.
Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.