For the Birds Radio Program: Fire!

Original Air Date: Oct. 21, 1996

Today Laura Erickson talks about Sneakers the Blue Jay’s narrow escape in a house fire. (4:23) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


Last month, my family had a house fire. Two oily rags used to stain a wood floor the day before were sitting in the open air on our front porch. They spontaneously combusted when no one was home. Miraculously, a new neighbor down the block was driving past and noticed the fire right when it started. I arrived home after a long drive from Milwaukee just in time to see fire trucks roaring in, my living room window crashing down, and huge flames swallowing up the porch.

One of the firemen had already rescued my main dog Bunter, but our emergency auxiliary backup dog Betsy was terrified. One of the firemen was up in my bedroom gently coaxing her, but Betsy wouldn’t budge. After the fire was under control, one of the firefighters let me go up there to get her out.

I was deeply impressed with how the firemen combined professionalism and expertise with deep, humane concern about our home and the things we loved. The first responder had even noticed that the floor was being refinished, the wood still raw, and warned the team to be careful about water damage to the floor.

Most of the house was filled with thick smoke, but the firemen had also checked to be sure that my office, with Sneakers and my other birds, was closed off. Birds breathe much more rapidly than we, and have a more efficient respiratory system; they take up oxygen and any poisons in the air more quickly than we. Miners have used canaries for centuries to warn them of dangerous gases. When the canary keels over, it’s time to get out. Wood smoke is dangerous enough. The smoke in a modern house fire contains all kinds of additional poisons from the chemicals in plastic, plywood, carpeting, synthetic fabrics, and furniture. Birds are usually the first to die, but thanks to the understanding and quick action of the Duluth Fire Department, my birds made it through.

Imagine how scary the whole thing was for them! My office is in the front of the house, one room over from the porch. Sirens, fire trucks, shouting firefighters, windows crashing in—all that must have been terrifying to them. When I came into the room, they were in an uproar, literally when it came to Sneakers, who was squawking in the finest Blue Jay tradition. She’d been fluttering and thrashing madly in her cage, getting her tail feathers badly frayed. These were new feathers that grew in this fall, so they’ll look ratty for months until she molts again. My other jay, Bloo Radley, a meek little victim of lawn chemicals, was rozen with fear and, perhaps because of his already fragile condition, was far more affected psychologically by the whole ordeal. He was sick for days, and I was afraid I’d lose him. But even very sick little Blue Jays are optimistic fighters, and Bloo held in there. Thanks to the fact that I’m allergic to birds, just a few days before the fire my sweet husband had bought me a high-quality air filter for my office. Now it proved instrumental in cleaning the air for my birds as well as me.

Little by little, our house is coming back to normal. Bloo Radley is 100 percent better, and Sneakers is fine, too, with only some raggy tail feathers to remind me of our close call. Firefighters put their lives at risk protecting us, our pets, and our property. My dad was a Chicago firefighter, and one of my best friends, John Keenan, who plays the voice of Jim Baker from Baker’s Blue Jay Barn, is the assistant fire chief here in Duluth. I know firsthand how much firefighters put their hearts into their jobs, and how deeply they care about people and the animals and belongings that we treasure. October is fire prevention month. Soak those oily rags in soapy water and don’t ever leave them sitting out in a basement or on a porch, even on a cool day.