Ashes of Home Give Visitors a Lesson in Need for Fire Safety

Times Staff Writer

Nine days after his Burbank home was gutted by a fire, Larry Henry held an open house.

"This could be rough," said the 64-year-old machinist as he helped the Burbank Fire Department conduct a public inspection of his home as part of a fire-prevention program. "It's hard when your life goes up in flames in something like four minutes."

Henry's one-story tract home on East Tufts Street has been a charred shell since Feb. 7, when a fire, ruled accidental, caused damage estimated by fire inspectors at more than $180,000.

Henry, his wife and son say they barely escaped the fire, which exploded through the house at 4:27 a.m.

On Saturday, with mixed feelings, they returned to the house. Last week, at the request of the Burbank Fire Department, the Henry family agreed to participate in the program called "Learn Not to Burn."

In local papers and in mailers sent to several Burbank schools, the Fire Department invited community residents to take a first-hand look at the remains of the home. Firefighters were invited to bring their families. Burbank Mayor E. Daniel Remy was scheduled to attend. Press releases said the program would provide "significant emotional impact."

By Saturday morning the Fire Department had surrounded the house with tables filled with fire- prevention literature, smoke alarms and refreshments.

Cardboard signs identified various rooms as well as the remains of furniture and appliances. A sign on the lawn listed details of the fire, noting that the blaze had been controlled in 20 minutes.

The event drew nearly 500 visitors, mostly families of neighbors and firefighters. From 10 a.m. until late afternoon, they gathered at windows and doorways, peering over yellow banners marked "Fire Line: Do Not Enter." Firefighters took turns describing safety procedures and explaining the cause and progress of the blaze.

"It started here," said fire inspector Steve Pennington, pointing to a fireplace and a closet next to it at the back of the house. "This fireplace used to have a gas pipe in it, but the hole wasn't plugged when a contractor removed it. Over the years the heat seeped into the closet, lowering the combustion temperature of the wood. Eventually it exploded."

Ruins, Piles of Debris

Inside, the home was in ruins. The skeleton of an antique chair had been left in the center of the living room, near blackened piles of unidentifiable debris. What remained of the walls and ceilings was covered with heavy soot, spotted occasionally by melted picture frames. What used to be a silver candelabrum had melted into the top of a second fireplace. A partially scorched Bible sat in the middle of the kitchen.

In a corner of the living room, Fire Department signs pointed down at several piles of rubble, identifying a television set and a melted aluminum window frame.

"Aluminum melts at 1100 degrees Fahrenheit," the sign said. During the fire, Pennington guessed, the temperature in the home had reached 1,300 degrees.

Many of of the visitors were friends of the Henrys, who are now living with a relative in Burbank. Most of the friends said they were stunned by the fire, which awakened most of the neighborhood.

"I'm not sure I could go through this," said John Leousis, who lives across the street. "That house used to look a lot like mine."

Unpaid Bill Survives

For the most part, the Henrys took it well. Kevin Henry remarked that his parents never let him sit in the chair, now blackened, in the middle of the living room. His father, in turn, said he wasn't at all sorry that one of his son's rock records had been melted onto the floor. On a tour of the house, the elder Henry groaned when he found an unburnt bill lying on a shelf in the kitchen.

"It's from a newspaper," he said. "I never stopped delivery."

Occasionally, however, the mood darkened. In the living room, Henry expressed his anger at the cause of the fire.

"Five cents worth of cement would have saved my house," he said. "It never should have happened. This house should still be standing."

Pauline Henry picked up a blackened piece of metal and said, "This used to be an antique lamp."

Tape of Fire Call

Just after noon, fire officials began playing a tape of Kevin Henry's call to the Fire Department on the morning of the blaze. In the recording, Kevin yelled unintelligibly into the phone, then quickly composed himself, giving his address and describing the fire. In the middle of the call he turned and yelled, "Get Out!" at his parents.

"I woke up at about 4:15 because I smelled smoke," he said Saturday. "I heard this popping noise, so I went into the living room. I felt the door of the closet, and then I saw this orange-reddish glow through the crack. . . . I yelled at my parents to get up and go outside.

"When my mother opened the front door, the fire just exploded."

Despite the tragedy, the Henrys, who are insured, plan to rebuild the house if the Fire Department determines that the structure is safe.

At the end of the day, Pennington said he considered the program a success. "Photos in the paper are good," he said. "This is better. This is devastating."

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