Photo by Gil Dekel, 2014

By Mark J Klein

“Did you hear about that fire?” “Where?” “Oh, a Jewish family with five kids!” “Luckily someone was up and was able to get everyone out of the house before anyone was hurt. But they lost everything!”

Does this story sound tragic? This is unfortunately one of the better stories we hear every year around Chanukah time. Other times, people are actually hurt or, worse, lose their lives. Why do we go through the same motions year after year and only wake up when it’s too late?

We are very concerned today about protecting our families and homes from guns, anti-Semitism, the internet, etc. What about protecting them by instilling some common sense?

I’m not a firefighter and I don’t believe I’m some over the top safety monitor. But for some reason I feel like I’m more aware and prepared than the average person is.

Maybe it’s because when I grew up one of my closest friends was severely burned and it took months until I saw him again. Maybe it’s because my wife accidently lit the kitchen on fire once (not an exaggeration). Maybe it’s because my nephew was burned by an oil fire when making schnitzel. Maybe it’s because I remember in my community when a rav’s house burned down. And of course we all know of the tragic fires in California. I’m sure we all know someone or some story, yet we don’t act and are not careful.

This past Sukkos, I went to my wife’s family for the first night meal. As we prepared to go into the sukkah for Kiddush, someone came running in “The sukkah is on fire!” It was a bit of an exaggeration as only the table was on fire, but it took quite some time to put the fire out as it spread quickly and even the Lifetime table almost everyone uses itself caught fire. “Grab a fire extinguisher,” I said to my brother in law, and to my surprise he responded, “I don’t have one.” We used flour to put the fire out. I was lucky to know to use flour for an oil fire because I heard what happens if you try and put it out with water. Still, it was difficult as the fire caught underneath the table as well. Fortunately we were able to put out the fire. But as we sat through that meal, all I could think about was what if it took a few more minutes and the sukkah did catch fire? If the sukkah caught fire and it was against the house, the whole house could have caught fire! And why didn’t my brother in law have a fire extinguisher? He has everything! He always seems prepared to me. So I went to shul the next day and asked around,

“Hey! Do you have a fire extinguisher?”

“What about you?”

“Do you?”

I couldn’t believe the responses; almost all the people answered “no,” some other responses included “Yes… somewhere” or “I think… my wife probably knows” or the best one of all, “Yes, but probably expired,” with a giggle afterwards.

I couldn’t understand how casual people were about such a simple thing. How many parents leave teenage children at home on a Chanukah night while they attend a party or event? Do their children know where a fire extinguisher is, if it works, or how to use it?

We know common sense isn’t so common but shouldn’t basic safety be more common? How is it possible we light candles so close to a window when we know a curtain can catch fire? Are we afraid to put down silver foil beneath our menorah because it might ruin our Instagram picture? Are we using plastic or Lucite (highly flammable materials) as a tray for our menorah? They are great for doughnuts or dreidel shaped cookies but to actually put something hot near it is a bad idea. Do we buy cheap menorah candles or ready-made oil to save a few bucks at the cost of risking our homes and families? (I’ve seen some readymade oil gels completely catch flame before my eyes) I don’t care what people are advertising as great for Chanukah. It’s up to us to do our due diligence and check what can be flammable. Do we know the difference between Acrylic, Lucite, Plexiglas, etc. Guess what: they are flammable and can burn for extended periods of time due to their thickness. “Fire proofing” these products is expensive for manufacturers. Most are not done and if so not necessarily done properly. And still it’s only fire resistant up to a certain degree. A menorah with nine candles, especially when surrounded by other menorahs, can combine for a high temperature heating. I know because night two of Sukkos at my sister in law’s Lucite tray caught on fire.

I remember as a kid watching and reading The Jungle Book. They refer to fire as “The Red Flower,” something that only man can make which can consume and destroy anything and everything. Can we have a bit more human sensibility to know this and act accordingly to prevent a disaster from occurring or are we as primitive as animals that cannot comprehend the ways in which to control a flame?

I hate to sound like a nervous wreck but I’d rather be proactive prior to Chanukah than risk hearing another story yet again this year.

  1. Get a fire extinguisher (one on each floor if you can), know where it is, and make it easily accessible. Keep it out on Chanukah. Between the menorah and the stove for latkes, the risks are higher. Make sure to check that the fire extinguisher is not expired and everyone in the household can operate it.
  2. Make sure the items you use to light and anything near the lights are fireproof or fire resistant.
  3. Never leave or go to sleep with a menorah on (make sure it’s totally out).
  4. Never pour water on an oil fire (again fire extinguisher) or pro tip use flour.
  5. Make sure the household is aware of fire department, police, and Hatzalah numbers.

Let’s spread the word and hope to not hear an “oy nebach” story and let Chanukah be the holiday it is meant to be. A Chanukah Sameach filled with only joy and happiness. n

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