Family flees burning house in dead of night

A piercing fire alarm didn’t just startle a Broken Hill family – it saved their lives, writes Cotton Ward.
It was 5.46am on a hot Wednesday last month in Broken Hill when Nathan Brown was woken by five smoke alarms shrieking as the house filled with smoke coming from flaming ducted air-conditioning vents.
He shared the partly renovated tin home with his fiancee, Sheree Battams, and their two children, Memphis, 5, and Alexander, 3.
“Sheree grabbed the kids and the phone and ran out of the house,” Brown says. “We couldn’t see much through the smoke.”
He says it took about a minute to get everyone outside.
Brown decided to rush back in to retrieve a prepared “emergency box” containing birth certificates and the umbilical clamps from their babies.
“When I went back, I saw flames coming through the plastic vents – they were melting,” he says.
When they had assembled outside, Battams rang 000.
“Then it suddenly hit us – ‘Oh no, the cats!”‘ Brown says. Their indoor pets, Lester and Domain, were missing.
It was too dangerous to go back again but Lester was later found alive underneath a bed and Domain had fled outside, hiding in an abandoned dog’s kennel.
“We were very happy we’d all got out alive,” Brown says.
The fireys arrived quickly. “The roof was gone within five minutes. It was irreparable. It took about 15 minutes to extinguish the flames,” Brown says.
A fire investigation showed the blaze was started by a faulty air-conditioning unit.
“Our air-conditioning unit was only three months old – it cost $3500.
“The living room and three bedrooms were burnt. The kitchen, laundry and bathroom didn’t have air-conditioning ducts – they have water and smoke damage.”
They’d just put in an $8000 kitchen and paid $4000 for electrical and plumbing work.
“The house looks OK from the outside,” Brown says, “though if you look closely, you can see the tin is charred.”
A building and engineering report by the insurer, NRMA, deemed the building unsafe and the family is now living nearby with Battam’s mother.
Brown, a butcher, has lived in Broken Hill for five years.
He says the area gets very dry heat, which hits up to 45 degrees. “I’ll get an air-conditioning unit that sits on the side of the wall next time.”
His son’s room had sustained the most damage. “I was looking at Alexander’s room afterwards,” Brown says, then pauses. “Thank God for smoke alarms.”

What you need to know about smoke alarms
* Smoke from home fires is toxic and when you’re asleep, the smoke will put you into a deeper sleep. This is why alarms are critical.
* Smoke alarms should be tested regularly.
* Replace the batteries once a year.
* Vacuum the alarms every six months to keep them clean.

TWO PHOTOS: Everyday heroes … (at front) fire survivors Sheree Battams, with son Alexander, 3, and Nathan Brown with Memphis, 5, flanked by firefighters (from left) Wayne Reed, Nathan Pascoe, Glen Whitehead and Ian Sanderson. Photo: Darrin Manuel; PHOTO: Life saver … every home needs one.

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