Sunday, July 24, 2011

When Cabin Heaters Go Down in Flames

            A group of guests that I’ll refer to as the Flambé party came to us requesting to extend their stay at the Iceberg Lodge by one night.   Since more people staying in cabins means more revenue for the Lodge, we were happy to book them for a second night.   If we had known that by this point the Flambés had already set their original cabin on fire, we might not have been so eager to let them stay a second night.

            The guest cabins are all heated with propane heaters.   We're in coastal Alaska, and even in summer, it can get pretty cold here.   One of the perks of staying here is that our heaters can really crank out the BTUs on those cold, damp, rainforest mornings.   But when the cabin heaters are turned up all the way, the heater unit itself gets pretty hot.   After an incident in our first season involving a smoldering pair of socks, we put signs above all the heaters warning guests not to put things on top of the heater, as their stuff will catch fire.   We also repeat this in the orientation we give new guests, along with other crucial information, such as what time the lunch buffet is set out, and how to avoid being eaten by a bear.   

            Shortly after dinner, Mrs. Flambé finishes her drink, signs up her family for their kayak tour, and leaves the main lodge building to go back to her cabin.   About thirty seconds later, she sprints back to the bar, collars the manager, and tells him her cabin is on fire.   Armed with a fire extinguisher, our hero manager dashes to the cabin, and opens the door.   Billowing smoke pours out; the only thing visible through the smoke is the flames themselves, which are covering the wall above the heater, and beginning to lick at the rafters.   Geoff crawls through the smoke, and sprays the flaming wall until he’s choking.   He lunges towards his nearest exit –a closed sliding-glass door - and smacks into it like a bird hitting a picture window.    Eventually he gets out, and grabs another, larger fire extinguisher that had been rushed over from the lodge.   Geoff nails the fire again, and the flames disappear under a barrage of chemical goo.   

            What we were left with was a cabin filled with smoke, with portion of the south exterior wall burned completely through, water and fire-extinguisher-juice all over the carpets and the remnants of the south wall.   

            It turns out, Mr. Flambé took a shower right before dinner, and thought it would be a great idea to dry out his bath towel by draping it across the top of the heater.   We could still see a portion of the towel that had burnt itself onto the metal, complete with its little washing instructions tag.   

            The next hour was spent airing our the cabin, and pulling out all of the furnishings that could potentially be soaking up the smoke odor – bedding, pillows, mattresses, curtains, shower curtains, towels (the surviving ones), and lampshades.   In between carting things out of the room, we were all coughing like we had contracted the plague.   Aside from the fact that the cabin was filled with smoke, the stuff that they treat cabin logs with to make them weatherproof isn’t something you want to burn and then go around breathing, apparently.   

            The Flambé party showed rather less remorse than one might anticipate.   They didn’t seem particularly upset that they’d burnt out a wall of their cabin – in fact, one of the Flambés was recording the fire on her camera and cackling with laughter while we were still working to put the blaze out. 

            Fortunately, no one was hurt, and the cabin is still structurally sound.   Unfortunately, we had to chainsaw out a two-foot by eight-foot section of the cabin, and replace it with a 2x4 and plywood frame, which was put up the day after the fire, and hurriedly stained the next day.   (Did I mention that we needed to house clients in this cabin four days after the fire?)    We also disassembled and carried out the bed frames, and all the furniture,  and ordered a rug cleaning machine and ten new pillows from Seward, all the lumber needed to fix the hole in the wall.   Our maintenance man replaced the burned-out heater (which still works, but looks a little too crispy to put back in the cabin.)   Our Hospitality staff have been frantically washing the affected bed linens to try and get the smoke smell out.   The shower curtain has been sitting in a vat of bleach water in a corner of the kitchen; the mattresses are airing out in an unoccupied staff room.   Additionally, all other construction projects in camp have come to a grinding halt while we work to triage the burnt-out cabin back into a livable space.  

          The fire's been a reminder about how fast problems can arise out here.   As isolated as we are here, if things go wrong, all we have to rely on is the skills of the staff, a duffel bag of medical gear, and big shed full of tools and leftover construction debris.  Thankfully, this time it was enough.

            If we ever name our guest cabins (as has been done at one of our sister lodges), we're unanimously calling this one the Campfire Cabin.   And its not because its close to the fire ring, although that’s the excuse we’ll use if the occupants mention a smoke smell...   

            We did end up letting the Flambé party stay their second night.   Through some unfortunate quirk of the lodge work schedule, I ended up being their guide on all of the tours they took over the next two days.   I tried my best to be suave, polite, and professionally congenial - and not think of them as the idiot arsonists who almost burned down my home.    

            Strangely, the Flambés had a really good time during their visit.   Just for the record, if I ever visit a fancy lodge and then accidentally set fire to my room, I will probably be too busy wallowing in mortification to actually enjoy the rest of my stay.   This was apparently not an issue for them.   The final straw was when the Flambés finally left, the whole group (five people, two-night stay) tipped us exactly $12.    Just to clarify, $12 for five people would be considered a bad tip even for a dinner at the pizza restaurant in Seward.   

            Also, since the Campfire cabin incident occurred, the hospitality team has already saved a pair of wet socks left on a heater, preventing a similar blaze from erupting in another cabin.   One of the reasons I love working here is that our guests, by and large, are great people.   Other guests amuse and terrify me by turns...  

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