View Full Version : Surviving a house fire, early 20th century

05-04-2016, 06:02 PM
This is the scenario: it's a two story house made of wood. A mother is in a bedroom with her two year old daughter, putting her to bed. The light is from a lantern. Visitors enter the house and she jumps up to run down to meet them, upsetting the lantern without noticing, and runs downstairs.

Downstairs, there is an altercation, and then the mother sees smoke and/or flames coming from the room she has just left. The baby is still in there. One of the men (actually the baby's father) leaps up the stairs and runs into the room and grabs the child, wrapped in a cotton sheet (that's all there would be as it is the tropics). His clothes catch fire as he runs downstairs. After they take the baby from him one of his friends rolls him in the carpet and they take both of them to hospital.

In the end, the baby survives with light burns. The father has severe 3rd degree burns but probably survives.

This I would like to know: how can the mother be reasonably alerted to the fire in the room, without the baby being too badly burnt or suffering smoke poisoning? Would there be flames or smoke coming out of the doorway? How conscious might the child be? Would she be screaming when she is rushed downstairs? And any other details would be appreciated for this set up.
Thanks to all responders!

05-04-2016, 06:54 PM
Have they got a dog that would react?

05-04-2016, 07:09 PM
If the child is awake, then her screaming would do it. Fear of fire is primal.

05-04-2016, 07:13 PM
Someone outside sees the flames or the smoke and screams/pounds on the door.

A flicker of light out the corner of her eye.

She hears shattering glass from the fire breaking something that had expandable liquid in it, or the curtains crashing down when the rod broke. (This could occur on the far side of the room from the baby, so the flames and smoke would be the farthest possible distance from it.) The noise would make them look up, they'd see the fire, etc. Dad could be burnt from the flashover as the fire went over the ceiling, and then the baby would be burnt by secondary flames on the Dad's clothing/being held. Dad's wounds would be far worse than baby's.

05-04-2016, 08:06 PM
First thing is a lantern, when they fell, tended to break the glass globe and spill fuel. Usually had a good fire almost immediately.

Second is smoke and heat rise, and fire climbs. Upstairs and the attic might be totally involved before anyone downstairs notices anything. Most likely things for noticing would be something falling or someone outside.

Third is the kid is going to inhale some smoke. The kid will be spitting up black tarballs for a while. Kid would be screaming as they go downstairs and out.

Fourth is "stop, drop, and roll" wasn't known then. Usually someone would try beating out the flames. Dad's chances of surviving the infections he's going to get are slim. Even now, burns are tough to save the person.

Jim Clark-Dawe

05-04-2016, 09:35 PM
Thanks everyone! I'll try and work something out... for instance: the house is pretty isolated but there IS someone outside who could alert them. The window would be open. Perhaps the fire could catch the curtains first, guy outside sees the fire almost immediately, rushes in to alert them, dad rushes upstairs and grabs baby, his clothes catch fire, runs down with his clothes on fire, baby screaming?

05-04-2016, 09:53 PM
I just remembered something. These houses have no ceilings on the upstairs rooms (for ventilation), ie they are all open to the eaves. So the smoke would rise up into the eaves and possibly be visible... however, it would be dark up there.

05-05-2016, 07:50 PM
Not a question you asked, aruna, but lanterns were usually used for lighting outside of the house--where we might use a flashlight nowadays.

As you're upstairs in a bedroom, lighting would be by candle because it wasn't a good idea to go walking around with a kerosine lamp, the usual early 20th century non-electric non-gas alternative.

05-06-2016, 12:16 AM
Early 20th century mean natural fibers. Cotton, wool, linen don't really want to burn. That's part of their appeal.

05-06-2016, 01:25 AM
With third degree burns, the father can't be burned on very much of his body if you expect him to survive. My grandfather, a pilot, was in an airplane crash in the mid-1980s. He had second and third degree burns on 60% of his body and died after about a month. I don't know much of what went on, because I was only 10 and my parents were trying to protect me, but I know they had to amputate his fingers, and he had multiple skin grafts. But in the end, he died--and it was probably a mercy. My grandfather's co-pilot suffered burns over 90% of her body and she died after just two days.

In the days before antibiotics, I wouldn't expect someone with third degree burns to survive at all, unless, perhaps, if it was a very small burn.

05-06-2016, 09:11 PM
This I would like to know: how can the mother be reasonably alerted to the fire in the room, without the baby being too badly burnt or suffering smoke poisoning?

Baby crying. For thousands of years, every adult has automatically alerted to the cries of a child and rushed to meet their needs. The rest you can write as you need to for the story.


James D. Macdonald
05-07-2016, 12:48 AM
What do you need to accomplish with this scene? From that we can work backward to what the fire would be like.

05-08-2016, 02:43 PM
I really only need to have the dad rush upstairs to rescue the child. That's the whole point of the scene. It's his "moment" of valour.

James D. Macdonald
05-08-2016, 05:44 PM
Then all we really need is to have the curtains on fire. At the point where someone's hair and clothing catches fire and (particularly given early 20th century medicine) you're looking at fatal burns.

If he has to run past the flames to reach the child, you'll have it, I think. He can get second degree burns on exposed flesh (and assuming reasonable care) not get life-threatening secondary infections later on.

Have the fire too large to extinguish by stamping on it, but not so large that someone will die. (#1 cause of death in fires is smoke inhalation, not thermal burns, BTW. Not so bad early 20th c. before widespread plastics that produce hydrogen cyanide and phosgene when they burn, but still nasty enough.)

You can find a huge number of demonstration burns on Youtube (e.g. this one from the International Association of Fire Fighters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piofZLySsNc ) that will show you exactly what you're looking for.

05-08-2016, 06:46 PM
Thanks, Uncle Jim! By sheer coincidence, one of the friends downstairs who helps him when he runs down, loads him into the car and drives him to hospital--- is known as Uncle Jim! So it is all very fitting. Uncle Jim happens to be outside when the curtains catch fire, sees it and runs through the door yelling fire, meanwhile the child screams in terror. The dad runs up. grabs the child in the smokey room, runs back down to safety. That sound OK?

James D. Macdonald
05-08-2016, 06:53 PM
That sounds lovely. (And thanks!)

Then as now, if you aren't out of a burning building in under 90 seconds you may not be getting out at all.