Shawn Mills credits one of his cats, Zeus, with saving his life and the life of his family when a fire broke out at their home at 3 a.m. on Dec. 21.
“He kept jumping up and down and looking outside,” Mills said.
The cat’s antics prompted his wife to look outside, where she saw flames. She yelled at Mills, who went down to the basement to wake his adult son, who was staying with them. They got their two dogs outside but their two cats, Zeus included, fled down to the basement. Mills said he grabbed a fire extinguisher and was going to go after them when his wife told him in no uncertain terms to get outside.
“I was going to try to save anything,” he said.
The cats were found in the basement, unharmed, once the fire was out. Mills said his smoke detectors weren’t functioning because he had taken the batteries out to replace them and had forgotten to put new ones in.
A fire investigator traced the cause of the fire to Christmas lights hung on the front of the house. Spokane Valley Fire Department Fire Marshal Greg Rogers said the investigator can’t be more specific than that.
“They’ve eliminated all the other sources, but they can’t say for 100% certain it was the lights,” he said. “There’s nothing else it could be. It could have been a pinched wire, it could have been an electrical short, it could have been any number of things.”
Mills and his son had spent a lot of time decorating the house and yard for Christmas. “I had the place looking like the North Pole,” he said.
He said he’s uncertain how the lights could have caused the fire because they were off. The lights were on a timer and were on from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. each day. “I can’t figure that out,” he said.
Rogers said that anything plugged in still draws power, even if it is turned off, as the Christmas lights were at the time of the fire. “Even though it’s off, it can still have energy going through it,” Rogers said.
The fire blackened the front of the house and melted siding. It burned the porch roof and extended into the attic of the home. When putting out the fire, firefighters tried to limit their damage when tearing out the ceiling to get at the fire, Rogers said. “We wanted to make sure it was habitable,” Rogers said.
Mills said he started cleaning up the torn-down insulation and drywall later that same morning. He said he hoped he could get a fire restoration company to come out and help him clean up and he’d be back home in a week or so. But his Pemco insurance agent and a contractor called out to evaluate the house told him to expect repairs to take a year or more.
“I didn’t know that it’s not the fire that’s the worst, it’s the smoke,” he said. “There was a lot of smoke.”
While the contractor was still there that morning, he noticed smoke coming from the attic. The fire department came back to find that the fire had reignited. It’s something that happens rarely, Rogers said, but can happen if only a single ember is missed and smolders. On large fires it’s not unusual for a crew to stay on scene for 12 hours to monitor for flare -ups, but that usually isn’t done with smaller fires like the one at Mills’ home, Rogers said.
The front door of Mills’ home has already been replaced, but once it’s open visitors can look straight up through the torn-out ceiling and see the charred underside of the home’s roof. Portions of ceiling were torn out in the entryway, an adjacent bedroom and the living room to put out the fire.
“I feel like crying when I look at that,” Mills said. “One minute everything is great and you’re waiting for Christmas, the next minute the house is on fire and you’re running for your life.”
Mills’ father bought the house in 1973, and Mills spent some of his childhood there. He inherited the house in 1996 after his father died and he and his family have lived there ever since.
He’s been out of work since crushing a vertebrae and rupturing four discs in his spine while working in a print shop. Mills has had four lower back surgeries since then, none of which have relieved his pain. Despite that, his burned house and his truck breaking down only days after the fire, Mills is trying to be positive. His family has been living in a hotel, but will soon move into a rental home until their home is repaired.
The most important thing is that his family and his pets are OK, Mills said. “The rest can be fixed,” he said.
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