Ruth Kaspick is lucky to be alive, and she knows it.
Now the Trail senior is sounding alarms about a seemingly innocuous everyday item that holds the potential to become a dangerous fire starter, as she recently discovered firsthand.
And that common household novelty is a heat pack. Specifically, a cloth bag filled with wheat husks and sewn tight, so that it can be warmed in a microwave oven and used over and over for comfort.
Ruth is now sharing her story about a house fire that she says began with the heating of one of these packs.
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It was the morning of March 11, and her day started out like any other.
She rose early, had a bite to eat, and a little later, the 81-year old decided to lie down and watch T.V., maybe even catch a little shut-eye.
First, Ruth warmed up her heat pack in the microwave – she calls it her “bean bag” – then put it on her feet, and settled in on her chesterfield for a rest.
Next thing she remembers is being woken up by the clanging of the recycling truck in the back alley, after all it was her garbage pickup and recycle day.
But when she opened her eyes, her quaint East Trail home was filled with smoke and thick with the acrid smell of something burning.
Luckily, Ruth’s couch was very close to the back door. Feeling slightly off-kilter, all she could think of doing was opening up the door to let some air in, and get herself more oriented.
Once she did that, however, the breath of fresh air – full of oxygen – was so forceful that Ruth was blown back in a whoosh and the couch instantly ignited in flames as high as five feet.
Meanwhile, in the seconds this all took to happen, the Alpine recycling worker smelled smoke, glanced around, and saw Ruth’s face at the door and the flicker of flames behind her.
He ran up to the house, helped her outside, then quickly pulled the foam cushions off the couch and dragged them into the backyard. His quick thinking saved Ruth and likely saved her entire house from going up in a blaze.
“If it wasn’t for the garbage man making noise out there I wouldn’t be here,” Ruth told the Trail Times. “Even the front of my housecoat was singed. I couldn’t breathe very good and the back room was full of smoke,”she recounted. “So if it wasn’t for him, he helped me get out, I wouldn’t be here today.”
The Alpine worker also called 9-1-1, and that report went into the regional fire hall just before 10:15 a.m. that Wednesday morning.
BC Ambulance was called to the scene as well, and Ruth was transported to the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation.
She is still shaken, and since the terrifying ordeal, Ruth has been recovering at her son’s home in the Okanagan.
“Thirty seconds more, or if the recycling man wasn’t there when she opened the door, it would be a different story,” her son, Chris Kaspick, told the Times.
“Because her housecoat was already on fire, it was singed at the bottom, it was that close.”
With his mom settled in safe and at his side, Chris has been taking care of the business end of things, such as calling the insurance company and getting the house restored from smoke damage.
With the dust settled and residual shock starting to ease, Chris called the Trail Times from his Okanagan home to pass on what happened.
“After years of use, the husks in those bags can breakdown and become quite flammable,” he said. “And then, when it’s heated up and put on a couch that is made of foam, that becomes very flammable – it just smoldered while she was sleeping,” Chris explained. “So when the Alpine truck woke her up … and she cracked the back door open, as soon as the oxygen got it, it blew her back a bit and the oxygen set the fire.”
Before sharing this story with the Times, Chris had an even more important call to make, and that was to Alpine Disposal.
He had to thank the man who saved his mother and try to get this worker some sort of commendation, or at least some well-deserved recognition for his life-saving actions.
As the old saying goes, “Not All Heroes Wear Capes.”
“He’s a humble guy and said he just wants to be known as the recycle guy who helped out, and he doesn’t want his name out,” Chris said, his own voice cracking with emotion.
“All he said is, ‘if it was my mom, I wish somebody would do the same thing for her.’”
As Ruth readies to return home, one thing is clear, the terrifying experience did not steal her sense of humour.
Most of all, she wanted to warn others that these heat packs can become a fire hazard.
But Ruth also had one last thing to say.
“Now that I know, I’ll just get an electric one,” she quipped.