Paul Gross: The thing that saved my house after fire last year

Local 4 meteorologist shares advice following garage fire

A Farmington Hills fire truck sits in a residential neighborhood. Photo by Paul Gross. (WDIV)

Remember that gorgeous November weekend one year ago, when we had highs in the 70s?

I was working for meteorologist Andrew Humphrey that weekend, and I had just gotten home from working the morning show. My routine when working that double shift is to then eat some breakfast, take a nap, then pack a dinner and head back into the station to do Local 4 News at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.

I had just finished eating when I heard something that sounded like an animal in the wall.

I was walking around my kitchen and dining room, hand cupped to my ear, trying to figure out where the animal was. Then my cell phone rang. It was my neighbor Cheryl.

“Are you home right now?” she asked.

“Yeah, why?”

Cheryl’s next words sent a chill down my spine: “I think your garage is on fire.”

I opened the mudroom door to the garage and, sure enough, fire was racing up the wall of the garage. I quickly hung up on Cheryl and called 911, then grabbed my fire extinguisher to see if I could get the fire out before it reached the roof. I got the base of the fire out, but then my fire extinguisher ran out … and there was still fire up above.

At that point, Cheryl’s husband, Troy, banged on my dining room door wall -- he had his fire extinguisher. He came into the garage and got the rest of the fire out just as it was starting to touch the angled roof rafters.

Had those caught on fire, then the whole garage would have quickly gone up in flames, before spreading to the house.

A later forensic investigation by an electrical engineer determined that the fire was caused by my licensed electrician improperly installing my electric car’s charging station in the garage. Given the Chevy Bolt battery recall in the news lately, I want to emphasize that the fire was not caused by the car or the charging station; it was the electrician’s fault. And the sound I heard in my kitchen that sounded like an animal in the wall was probably arcing that caused the fire.

Words cannot describe how lucky I was. If any of the following not happened, I may have lost the entire house:

  • Cheryl was outside on the beautiful day doing some yard work, when a couple also enjoying a walk in the neighborhood noticed the smoke and told Cheryl, since they didn’t have a cell phone. Had it been a crummy weather day, then none of them would have been outside, and that fire would have become well-established before I even knew about it.
  • If instead of occurring after I got home from the morning show but, rather, after I got home after working the 11 p.m. newscast when I quickly get right to bed, then the entire house would have gone up in flames, possibly with me in it.
  • The fact that Troy and I had fire extinguishers saved the garage at the very least, and possibly the rest of the house.
A photo of Paul Gross' garage following a fire. (WDIV)

The reason I’m writing this article: Everybody should have at least one fire extinguisher and, just as importantly, know how to use it.

I spoke to Jason Baloga, Farmington Hills Fire Marshal, and he wants you to know the following:

“The Farmington Hills Fire Department along with the National Fire Protection Association want to remind residents that fire extinguishers can play a critical role in extinguishing a small fire or control a fire until the fire department arrives. Extinguishers should be located in an accessible and visible location. Make sure you are familiar with utilizing a fire extinguisher prior to an emergency.

To operate an extinguisher, remember the word PASS:

  • Pull the pin. Hold the extinguisher with the nozzle pointing away from you and release the locking mechanism.
  • Aim low. Point the extinguisher at the base of the fire.
  • Squeeze the lever slowly and evenly.
  • Sweep the nozzle from side to side.

Fire extinguishers should not delay evacuating a building that is on fire. The message ‘get out and stay out’ is often utilized as today’s home furnishings contribute to rapid fire spread and smoke development. Fire extinguishers are one element of a fire response plan. Early notification of a fire is critical to escape. Every household should have working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms as well as a fire escape plan.”

A photo of Paul Gross' garage following a fire. (WDIV)

The holidays create situations of higher fire risk. Every year on Local 4, we report on tragic stories about house fires during the holidays. Some of the incidents involve faulty Christmas light wiring on a tree that hasn’t been watered enough and it became very dry, others start in the kitchen and others start from people falling asleep with a lit cigarette in their hands.

I now have three fire extinguishers in my house: one in the mudroom at the entrance to the garage, a smaller one under the sink for kitchen fires and another in the basement.

Remember, there are different types of fire extinguishers for putting out different kinds of fires. Do some research to determine which one is right for you, or seek assistance from an employee at a hardware or home improvement store.

And, most importantly, have at least one fire extinguisher and know how to use it. If you have an old extinguisher laying around, check its expiration date -- most extinguishers last for about ten years before needing to be recharged or replaced.

If you do one thing for yourself this holiday season, get a fire extinguisher. Or two. Or three. Hopefully you’ll never have a need for it, but if that time comes, you’ll be so happy that you have one.


Related: West Bloomfield Fire Department: Working smoke alarm helps save resident on Sweetbriar


About the Author:

Local 4 meteorologist Paul Gross was born in Detroit and has spent his entire life and career right here in southeast Michigan. Paul has researched, written and produced eight half-hour documentaries for WDIV, as well as many science, historical and environmental stories.