A blaring siren in my Costa Mesa neighborhood usually doesn't raise my eyebrow, but last night, as I hump home an armload of goods from Albertsons, a swarm of fire engines descending on my condo complex rouses my interest. When one of the trucks enters my driveway and the street behind it fills with urgent gyrating flashes of red, I become concerned.
I'm five blocks away from home when this begins, so I have minutes to conjure an array of scenarios, none pleasant. Did I leave the goddamn toaster on, I wonder? Wait, I don't have a toaster.
Finally rounding the neighboring building, I arrive at the entryway. I ask a full-suited firefighter standing in front of my home, "Is everything ok?"
He says nothing and walks away.
My neighbors huddle outside in their pajamas, some holding babies and little dogs. It's 11:30 p.m. There's smoke coming from who knows where. This is a fire, I think, I hope it's not MY house.
My neighbor, a middle-aged Vietnamese man who fled 'Nam during the height of war, runs to me holding a red fire extinguisher.
"Good thing I have this fucking thing," he curses in his Viet accent. "If I not have this, we all burn in hell."
I ask him to slow down and tell me what happened. The neighbor, Mr. Kiem, says his wife awoke, bothered by the smell of smoke. Kiem went outside to see what was going on and saw plumes bellowing from his neighbor's garage – two doors from where I live. Kiem ran up and down the complex pounding on everyone's door and screaming fire.
Finally the owners of the house from which smoke was emanating opened the garage. Unruly fire engulfed their dryer and washing machine.
"It burn just like an oven," Kiem said.
Ever the resourceful neighbor, Kiem grabbed his fire extinguisher, gritted his teeth and faced the inferno head on.
The family, whose garage was burning, watched dumbfounded. The family consisted of a woman holding a blanket-cocooned baby, a little girl holding a chihuahua, two older men with mustaches, four or five young men and boys, two young girls and another woman.
With true grit and tenacity, Kiem beat back the wicked scorching appendages of the fire and quenched the molten appliance before it could roast and cremate my neighbors in their slumber.
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"Those people are so fucking stupid," Kiem says of the family whose appliances he extinguished. "Look, 15 fucking people live in that house and no one know it's on fire." Kiem makes a motion with his hand and throws back his head, insinuating the family was all drunk.
Since Kiem had already put out the fire, the firefighters didn't stay long. I did have a chance to ask one of them how a dryer catches fire.
"It happens a lot more than you would think," says a firefighter in his mid-twenties with his head shaved bald. "If you don't clean the lint catcher every time, some of the lint can get underneath it. Over years and years it just builds and then you have a fire hazard."
The only way to prevent it is to be hyper-vigilant with your lint and make sure to clean it often, he says, lest your bed become a funeral pyre. Yeah.