By Mike Anderson
A Willow Beach couple says they are lucky to be alive after a fire engulfed their home at 753 Churchill Lane last weekend.
Paul Priggen, 72, was sleeping upstairs when his wife, Irena, 70, smelt smoke, waking him up at 3:45 am on Sunday.
“My wife comes in screaming the house is on fire! I could smell smoke, and the smoke alarms were going nuts,” he said.
“I came downstairs and discovered the fire was in my garage. In less than five minutes, it was in the house.”
“I went back in the front door, got the dog out and yelled at my wife to get out. But she went back in and got two photo albums and tried to look for her cats.”
According to Paul, his wife only had time to retrieve the photo albums and her purse before the flames began to reach the upstairs. The three cats, who never go outside, are still missing.
“I couldn’t believe how fast it spread. I stood on the street and watched it take half of the house out in about 15 minutes,” he said.
“It’s an old wooden house, very combustible. In 20 minutes, the whole house was up in flames.”
Paul, who couldn’t retrieve his wallet, lost more than his ID.
The fire destroyed all his possessions, tools, and four vehicles, including his prized vintage car, an orange 1970 Hemi Barracuda.
“It was my retirement car. I’ve owned it for 22 years. I just had it out for a drive on Saturday afternoon,” he said.
Paul says despite losing everything, they are thankful to be alive.
“It opens your eyes to how bad, how fast, how serious fire is,” he said.
“Knowing what I know now, I would put smoke alarms in every room and my garage.”
“Anybody who doesn’t have working smoke detectors, you’re out of your mind. Put lots of them in, and keep them working; check the batteries.”
Paul suspects the fire started in his garage, where he was charging a small battery for his garden tractor.
“The battery overheated and blew up. That’s probably it. But nobody knows for sure because there’s nothing left,” he said.
Like many homeowners, he stored various combustible materials, like paint, in the garage. When they ignited, the fire became so intense that two vehicles in the driveway were torched.
According to Fire Chief Ron Jenkins, three fire stations responded to the fire, with the first crew arriving at 4:03 am.
A total of seven fire apparatuses and 23 firefighters were called to battle the blaze.
“It took us an hour and a half to get it under control,” Jenkins said.
“This fire had a good hold on the structure prior to our arrival.”
“People don’t understand the speed at which fire will take over a residence. They only have seconds to get out.”
“It’s not just the fire; it’s the gases produced by the fire. Those gases ignite. And the speed is astronomical.”
Jenkins says the fire at 753 Churchill Lane underlines the importance of having working smoke alarms installed in the right locations.
“The key to survival in any fire is an early notification to allow you to get out. It’s also crucial to practice your home escape plan,” he said.
Paul and Irena, who have lived on the same street for more than 30 years, were touched by their neighbour’s kindness, providing clothes and emotional support.
“They all wanted to put us up. But my son lives six blocks from here. So we went to his house,” he said.
While the fire has been a traumatic experience, Paul plans to rebuild his house with the insurance money.
“I want to rebuild. I love it here. I’ve been here 35 years.”
But he has a warning for other homeowners.
“Make sure you take action to protect your home. So this doesn’t happen to you. Because the first thought is it’ll never happen to me,” he said
“I’ve dealt with wood stoves and stuff for 35 years. I never had a problem. Wake up one night; the house is gone.”