Out of the Ashes : Stories from Lancashire

Episode 3: Over £100k damage from a £2 disposable BBQ, are they worth it?

July 27, 2023 Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service Season 1 Episode 3
Out of the Ashes : Stories from Lancashire
Episode 3: Over £100k damage from a £2 disposable BBQ, are they worth it?
Show Notes Transcript

In episode three, we talk to Paul O’Brien who shares his story of a devastating house fire which began from a seemingly innocent disposable bbq which he placed  into a wheelie bin after a day of celebrations back in 2021. The waste from these items can remain hot enough to cause a fire for far longer than people realise. For Paul a £2 disposable bbq caused over £100k of damage and placed him and his family into temporary housing for 2 years. 

Together with Paul, we would like to raise the awareness of the dangers these items can pose and how the safe disposal of the hot waste is extremely important. If in any doubt, always douse a disposable bbq with water or tip it into a metal container in a safe place and ensure the contents are fully extinguished before ultimately disposing of it. For more information about barbecues and chimenea safety, please head to our website on www.lancsfirerescue.org.uk/bbq  

Paul also reflects on his new venture as an on-call firefighter at Lytham and provides an exclusive insight into how his family have found this new role following their house fire, his emotions at his first incident and how it feels to protect his local community.  If you would like to know more about becoming an on-call firefighter visit www.lancsfirerescue.org.uk/oncall

And remember if you liked our episode, please like and subscribe and let’s make Lancashire safer together.

[00:00:04.290] - Host
Welcome to Lancashire Fire and Rescue's first podcast series, Out of the Ashes: Stories from Lancashire. In this episode, we'll be talking to Paul O'Brien who had a serious house fire back in 2021. Paul's house fire was started by a disposable barbecue which had been placed in a wheelie bin after use. In the early hours of the following day the ashes, which had continued to smoulder, reignited and the fire spread from the bin to the fence, his car and his house.


[00:00:30.650] - Host

We attend almost 100 fires a year involving barbecues and the waste from these items can remain hot enough to cause a fire for far longer than people realise. The safe disposal of hot waste is extremely important. If in any doubt, douse with water or tip it into a metal container in a safe place and ensure the contents are fully extinguished before ultimately disposing of it. Paul, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. How are?


[00:00:57.320] - Paul O'Brien

Good, thanks. I'm good.


[00:00:58.610] - Host

Do you want to first describe to the listeners what was happening on the day of your incident?


[00:01:04.170] - Paul O'Brien

Sure. It was when England were in the World Cup and we were playing Russia and it was midday so some friends of mine come round for a barbecue. So we had a little disposable barbecue and during halftime of the football game about one o'clock we put some burgers on the barbecue. So we finished the burgers, we had them watch the football and the barbecue was out for about one thirty in the afternoon. After our friends went home, so the kids come back from playing, we played in the garden and then about eleven o'clock at night, we packed away all the garden, put the rubbish in the bins. I picked up the disposal barbecue, which had been out since two o'clock, so like eight hours ago. Just picked up my hands, it was freezing cold and put it in the bin like we've done hundreds of times before. Packed up the garden, went in, watched a bit of TV to about twelve, went to bed and that was a standard, normal day.


[00:02:01.180] - Host

What was the weather like on that day? Can you remember if it was hot?


[00:02:04.580] - Paul O'Brien

Lovely day. It was a really nice warm day. The kids were playing in the hot tub, the windows were open at night where it was so warm.


[00:02:10.880] - Host

So as you've gone to bed, what happened from that point? Did the smoke alarm go off? Because like we said, it spread.


[00:02:18.630] - Paul O'Brien

It was odd. So we went to bed about midnight and then at five in the morning we just heard bang on the front door. I was like, 'what the hell was that?' So then we sat up and as my girlfriend opened her eyes, she started screaming and I was like, 'what's going on?' And the whole house was orange, looking out of our bedroom to see the two kids bedrooms and it was just bright orange and it was, what is going on? And you could hear this crackling noise, which was just wood cracking.


[00:02:50.050] - Paul O'Brien

So we woke up and we were just screaming. So she got up and said, there's a fire. So jumped up, she ran in and got the youngest, a two year old, went and grabbed him. I went into the eight year old's bedroom, grabbed him and it was warm, the noise was so loud a crackling, and the colour was just bright orange. So what happened was the conservatory at the back was on fire and the fire was going past the bedroom windows, up into the eaves of the roof and into the roof. So literally, the fire wasn't in that. There's no smoke alarms going off because the fire was outside of the house and in the roof.


[00:03:24.450] - Host



[00:03:25.170] - Paul O'Brien

So all we could hear was a crackling noise. So the smoke alarms at that point hadn't activated.

[00:03:31.020] - Host

Did they activate at all during the time?


[00:03:35.180] - Paul O'Brien

We ran out, straight Down the stairs, went to the front door and it was locked. So then my girlfriend had to run into the kitchen to get the key, which was on the kitchen table, and then she saw all the kitchen on fire and then we were like, wow. 
So as we ran out the front door, the front door opened, big gust of wind come in, flames went through and then smoke alarms stopped to go off. As all the fire alarms were going off, as we were at the front door and then they were all going off. Because we opened the front door, the oxygen come in and the fire just went woosh and smoke just went engulf the house.


[00:04:07.170] - Host

So at that point is when it spread internally in the house?

[00:04:10.000] - Paul O'Brien

Yeah. So retrospect now, if we were to close the doors, we might say half of the house, but at that point, you just want to get out.


[00:04:19.250] - Host

Yourself, your partner and your kids are the priority for safety to get out.


[00:04:23.240] - Paul O'Brien

Yeah. So then we got them out and then next door, it affected next door as well, so then we have to bang on next door and get her out of the house, so she come out the house as well like 'what's going on'?


[00:04:34.040] - Host

Are they attached at the roof?


[00:04:35.480] - Paul O'Brien

Yeah, so it's like semi-attached. So the two houses attached and our roof was up, so then her roof spread into her roof, so it was quite a big deal there. 

[00:04:44.720] - Host

Yeah. So when you were outside of the house, obviously it's really good that you got out so quickly and there was no problems on your escape route.


[00:04:52.870] - Paul O'Brien

No. Well, only the front door was locked, which we never locked the front door. We locked the front door, but always had leave the key

[00:05:00.980] - Host



[00:05:01.530] - Host

next to the door. So if anyone's got a door that locks, always make sure you got a key by the front door if you need to get out quickly, because we had to run back into the kitchen to get the key to then go back out and open the front door.


[00:05:13.890] - Host

So once you were outside, what did your house look like? If you can describe it?


[00:05:18.330] - Paul O'Brien

It was orange. You could see through the windows and the back was just up. And then we got a driveway. So when I walked to the driveway, my little car was up on fire, well melting. The fence, it was just bright orange and the noise of crackling wood was intense and just smoke, thick, thick smoke. And it felt like we were there for an hour, just stood at the front, when in reality it was like four, three or three or four minutes.


[00:05:47.200] - Host

And did you ring the fire service or did someone else?

[00:05:49.630] - Paul O'Brien

One of the neighbours saw the bin on fire and phoned up and said it was a bin fire,

[00:05:54.850] - Host



[00:05:55.170] - Paul O'Brien

It was just a small fire. So when they turned up, they just presumed it was a small bin fire. And as they would chat to some of the guys, since as they were driving, they just saw this huge smoke, thick smoke, and went, this isn't a bin fire, this is bigger. So then extra appliances were deployed to help out. 

[00:06:13.430] - Host

Yeah, I think four fire engines were there and the area ladder platform, because it was spreading to the roof. So, like you say, that's not a normal small, bin fire, but it's quite a large response.


[00:06:24.160] - Paul O'Brien

It felt like such a long time, but in reality it was three or four minutes from when we phoned up. When the neighbours phoned up, we phoned up again and they were there. So just super fast.

[00:06:36.430] - Host

Could you talk a bit, a little bit more about the challenges, about when you were stood there, what was going through your brain about, what do we need to do next?


[00:06:44.750] - Paul O'Brien

We stood there and obviously it felt like an hour and stood there and you helpless.

[00:06:49.110] - Host

And at that point, the crews were, I'm assuming there, getting ready to deploy.


[00:06:52.810] - Paul O'Brien

Turned up and just stand back and off they just went, did what they did. Yeah.


[00:07:00.310] - Host

You're very lucky for all of you to have escaped and be safe. Obviously the incident is very traumatic, but to be out and safe and no one be trapped in that incident.


[00:07:13.360] - Paul O'Brien

Absolutely. We got out. We lost all of our possessions. We probably lost 95% of possessions, so, like photos and memories and just all kids toys, clothes, all of that just went covered in smoke and fire that went. But we got out and that was pretty good, pretty decent. We got out, so that was the main thing. So we're all good, we're all safe?

[00:07:36.070] - Host

Yeah. That's amazing. I just want to touch upon the risks of disposable barbecues. Were you aware of them before the incident?


[00:07:46.370] - Paul O'Brien

Yeah, absolutely. We go camping quite a lot, so we always take those or barbecues with us. Yeah, we've used them loads of times because they're cheap, they're easy, you don't have to clean a barbecue after, so we always use disposal barbecues. Didn't do anything different this time to what we've always done before. We cook on them after, after a few an hour or two, they stop cooking, the heat goes out of them. So you leave them and then you put them in the bin when it's cold, not realising...

[00:08:10.610] - Host

That it can still smoulder in the bin?


[00:08:13.030] - Paul O'Brien

It can still smoulder for 24 hours later. Which was shocking for me, because I had no idea. We've used them loads of times before.


[00:08:20.090] - Host

But never knew that they could be so hot for so long.

[00:08:23.060] - Paul O'Brien

No, it wasn't until after when you realised how it happened. We didn't even know how it happened. We thought it was an electrical fault or we thought,  we had no idea. It wasn't until they investigated and said it was the barbecue. We were just shocked because we thought, how can a barbecue that was out two o'clock in the afternoon start a fire at four or 05:00 a.m, the next day?

[00:08:40.280] - Paul O'Brien

And when it was in the bin yeah, because it just spread, didn't it?

[00:08:43.640] - Paul O'Brien

It was in the bin. The lid was closed. So you just think, how can that cause all this damage?


[00:08:50.880] - Host

And now, after the incident, have you touched a disposable barbecue again or?

[00:08:56.570] - Paul O'Brien

We've not even had a gas barbecue. No, so we've gone away and we've not had any disposable barbecues. It's just not on the agenda. You don't realise how dangerous they are. And I would say to anybody, just be careful. Douse it in water and then douse it again. And then just submerge it in water because we had no idea how long the coal retained heat. And yeah,


[00:09:23.010] - Host

Okay, so we'll move on to what happened after the incident. How long were you in temporary housing for? What was the situation? How did that happen?


[00:09:33.270] - Paul O'Brien

The insurance company turned up in the morning and they've been amazing. They've been so good, so they got us accommodation. We stayed at my girlfriend's parents house for two weeks initially, and then they got this house in St Anne's, which is about four or five miles away from the house because there wasn't anything available. So, we're told we'd be there for about nine months to a year. And unfortunately we had some issues with the builders, then we had new builders start and they've been amazing. So, in total, it's been two years since the fire until we moved back home. Just over two years we've been out of the house, so we moved back this week.

[00:10:12.200] - Host

And how was that?

[00:10:13.350] - Paul O'Brien


[00:10:14.610] - Host

Does it feel strange to be back in the house after such a long time?

[00:10:18.740] - Paul O'Brien

Yeah, we changed the kids rooms around a lot and we've knocked to wall downstairs so the house looks different. So it's not the same, so when they went back, they weren't in the same bedrooms.


[00:10:27.510] - Host

You're the little ones.

[00:10:28.520] - Paul O'Brien

Yes. We swapped their rooms over and just turned it around a bit and decorated totally different. But even now, the other night, I was in bed and you look through the door and you see the kids bedrooms. You have a little bit of a flashback, so that was a bit odd. Not had that before, so that was a bit weird. I'm sure that'd be okay.

[00:10:44.910] - Host

Eventually, over time, it would probably, because you're back in the same surroundings and not knowing what to do. It's strange


[00:10:52.610] - Paul O'Brien

Yeah. But the kids look as if they're good with it, they're cool, they're over it, which is amazing.

[00:10:59.330] - Host

So, do you want to touch upon about how it affected yourself, your girlfriend, your children, emotionally? How did they cope with it at the time? Because obviously, they were so little.

[00:11:11.220] - Paul O'Brien

Yeah. My oldest was eight and the youngest was two, so it was quite hard on them because they lost everything. So their toys, their clothes, everything that they had was gone. So obviously, when you're two years old, you have a little security blanket, we've security toys. He didn't have anything. His blanket. He didn't have anything. So we had to literally start from scratch, just buy everything again. And then he was asking for his toys and we were like, well, we've got you new toys. He's never want my old toys. So, that was hard to explain to him that those toys had gone, so we were giving them to another boy that needs them. You got these new toys now, so that was a bit difficult. The eight year old was a bit quiet for a while and a bit reserved, but he's come out with shell a bit a few months after.

[00:11:56.290] - Host


[00:11:56.760] - Paul O'Brien

So he's ten now and he's doing great. The four year old is doing great as well. So I think that time period of two years worked in our favour in a way.

[00:12:06.070] - Host

Yeah, it's quite a long time for them to process the incident and then to go back to the house. It's a long period of, like you say, development and growth.

[00:12:15.110] - Paul O'Brien

Yeah. So, in a way, it was a pain because we weren't home for two years, but for the kids mental health, it was probably a good thing that they wouldn't rush back in again. They got time to build new memories and then go back and brand new house.

[00:12:28.420] - Host

As we were saying, probably it doesn't look the same to them. Inside will help realise it's a new home and everything's going to be okay.

[00:12:37.080] - Paul O'Brien

Yeah. I mean, when we first went in there, all the carpets were in there, the walls were just white. It was a brand new house. So the kids went in there and they were just screaming with delight because it was a brand new big, big house with carpet, no beds or anything in there.

[00:12:48.470] - Host

Awh, bet they thought it was a big play area.

[00:12:49.860] - Paul O'Brien

They loved it. So this is your room, this is your house. And they were dead excited about it. So the other side, we've come out. It's good, It's good. The kids are enjoying it.

[00:12:58.970] - Host

Because you'll never forget that experience, will you, now that you've seen them so excited to be back?

[00:13:03.720] - Paul O'Brien

No, that's what we're focused on. So hopefully the memories of the fire will fade quite a bit now, and the new memories, they'll make it nice to be good 

[00:13:12.140] - Host

So knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently back in 2021?

[00:13:21.230] - Paul O'Brien

Probably the disposal barbecue was just, you just think you, you think you've done it right. You think you're responsible. I was 45 at the time. You think you know how to put out a barbecue. You think you've done the right thing. You think the barbecue has been out for 10 hours and you put in the bin. You think that's fine. So we've obviously not had a barbecue since, but if we were to have a disposable barbecue, or friends have disposable barbecues, you would say, put it in a bucket of water and just leave it. Leave it for a day.

[00:13:52.640] - Host

as long as possible.

[00:13:53.790] - Paul O'Brien

Just leave. If it doesn't need to be put in the bin, just leave it for a day. Let it just soak make sure everything's out. Anything with hot coals, like fire pits, disposable barbecues, anything with coals, put water on it and make sure that they're out, because we thought we did. I thought they were out and they weren't. And we lost everything because of it. So that's the big thing I would say, is for anything with hot coals, hot barbecues, fire pits, disposable barbecues, douse it in water.

[00:14:24.660] - Host

Yeah. Make sure it's completely out before moving it at all.

[00:14:27.750] - Paul O'Brien

Don't guess because I picked mine up and it was cold, the actual tray.

[00:14:32.000] - Host

Cold to touch.

[00:14:32.350] - Paul O'Brien

Yeah. So I picked it up, you shake it up, put it in the bin that we've done hundreds of times before. And there was obviously one little rogue ember in there that wasn't out, that.

[00:14:42.910] - Host

Just smoldered and spread from a bin to your fence.

[00:14:45.600] - Paul O'Brien

Hundreds of thousand pounds worth of damage just for this two pound barbecue.

[00:14:49.620] - Host

It's not worth it.

[00:14:50.640] - Paul O'Brien

No. So have a picnic,

[00:14:52.560] - Both

Pack a picnic.

[00:14:54.470] - Host

So moving on from that, it's very good that you were saved, you've moved back into your house, you're making new memories with the children. The very unique story, to yours is that you've now are one of our on call firefighters at Lytham. On call firefighters respond to emergencies in their communities from either home or work. How does it feel to be part of the service?

[00:15:20.870] - Paul O'Brien

It feels good. It feels as if I'm giving something back after what happened. I did apply, actually, before the fire applied, a couple of years before. Obviously, we had the youngest, so I paused the recruitment, and then during the recruitment process, the fire happened. But then, because we had to move house, I wasn't able to continue with recruitment because I wasn't in the area near the station, did the course and then had to wait until I could actually start at the station before we moved back to Lytham, which was a year later. So I got to a point where I just thought, do I just give up? Do I just say, I'm done with this? But then I thought, what had happened? I just thought, I can't give up now.

[00:15:57.840] - Paul O'Brien

So I continued. And then a year later, did the recruits course, got in and been at Lytham fire Station for year and a half now and yeah, I've been to a few house fires since, so that was quite odd, actually, being on the other side of it. We turned up to this house fire and obviously that the roof was on fire and we turned up and we thought, Right, this is it. So as we're in the house fire, the smell, the noise, the crackling noise, it was just a huge flashback of when it was my house fire and I was the other side. I was a firefighter that day. So that was a few seconds of, take a deep breath, this is what we're here for. So, yeah, that was very odd, the first one. But then since then, you just get on with it, just do the job.

[00:16:50.800] - Host

And does it feel good to try and help other people where you know how it feels?

[00:16:55.110] - Paul O'Brien

Yeah. I was chatting to the lady whose house fight was and I pulled it to one side and said, I can relate to this, I know what you're going through. I was in this situation a year ago, so it is going to be all right. She give me a big hug and I've spoke to her since and she's like, your words that day were so comforting, saying that it does get better because she lost everything as well. And I say, it does get better. Right now, it's hard, but every day it does get easier. It's a cliche. But every day gets easier.

[00:17:23.590] - Host

It's a cliche until you've been through it yourself and you know exactly how that feels. To that woman, those words will have meant the world.

[00:17:30.220] - Paul O'Brien

Yeah, exactly that. And so it was nice providing a bit of comfort to someone that you've been through the same situation as them. You can say, you will get through this.

[00:17:39.970] - Host

So what's your most favourite bit about being an on call firefighter?


[00:17:45.750] - Paul O'Brien

It's when you turn up to a job. You're at home doing cooking or you're watching TV, or you're doing work and your alerter goes off. You have no idea what you're walking into. So then you get to the station, you get the sheet and it says, what we're going to. It could be a car crash, it could be a house fire, it could be someone stuck in a swing, it could be anything. So you get there and then you get on the pump, you get changed, you go into the incident and in your mind, you think about, what do we need to do? And we get there and we make whatever situation that is better. We do what we can. You get people out of a burning house, you make safe a car that's on its side, you rescue someone from a swing, you cut them out of a swing. There's all these things that you do the job, you do it well, and then you get back in the pump, you go home and then you continue with what you were doing and you know, you've made a big difference. Someone's dialled nine nine for a reason.

[00:18:44.280] - Paul O'Brien

You've gone out, you've done what you need to do and you've gone home. You carry on as normal, but to that person, you've just saved them in a way. Takes some getting used to that because you just go back to your normal life, then you go back to your normal job. Yeah, that person is just you've cut them out of a car, and you sent them to, you've given them to paramedics. So you've helped people and then you just go back to your normal job.

[00:19:07.800] - Host

I think you've just described a perfect reason to why we have on call firefighters in Lancashire. It is helping the community. It's giving back, helping those people when they need you most.


[00:19:19.570] - Paul O'Brien

If someone dialls nine nine nine that's for a reason, they need help. And all the firefighters around, as soon as that alerter goes off, you just switch into a different mode and you just go right. It's like a switch just happens and you're there. Adrenaline is pumping. You go for it.

[00:19:37.080] - Host

How are your little ones with you being a firefighter?

[00:19:43.690] - Paul O'Brien

I'm not going to lie, they do enjoy it. They do like it. And when the alerter goes off, my little boy runs around like, dad, dad, your alerter is going off. I'm like, yeah, I'm just getting dressed now, pal. So when it goes off, because it's pretty loud, they get excited when I get back, 'what happened? What happened?' They get really excited about it. They won't know what happened. And when they see the fire engines go past, they're like, oh, Daddy, that's that's daddy's work.

[00:20:09.300] - Host

Oh, that's really lovely to hear. Yeah.

[00:20:11.190] - Paul O'Brien

So we've done a few school visits, like health, safety visits at the school. So when we've gone there, my little boy can see. He's like, oh, it's my daddy because he's dead proud. So that's kind of that's nice, your little warm feeling there.

[00:20:26.070] - Host

It's nice to hear that you have such a positive relationship with it after the fire that, you know, could have had some mental, emotional issues. But to say that they're proud of you.

[00:20:36.360] - Paul O'Brien

You, that's probably do somewhere.

[00:20:39.630] - Host

But if they're proud of you and they like seeing the fire engines,

[00:20:44.670] - Paul O'Brien


[00:20:46.430] - Host

So I think we can come to an end. What is the biggest takeaway? You want people that are listening today.

[00:20:52.960] - Paul O'Brien

To take it's, to really raise awareness of disposable barbecues. I've said this many times to a lot of friends already, is if you're going to have a disposable barbecue, keep it safe. Don't put it on grass because the grass will catch fire. Lytham Green, a couple of years ago someone put disposable barbecue on the grass and it all went up. So if you are going to use a disposable barbecue, use it safely and when you finish with it, douse it with water. Keep it doused with water and just keep it doused with water for a day. Don't take a risk and just be aware that those things stay hot for a long, long time. I thought I knew how long they stayed hot for. I was wrong. They stay hot for a long time. So submerge it in water and keep it in water for as long as you can 

[00:21:40.590] - Host

Thank you for taking the time to share your story today. Remember to take extra care when using barbecues. Always keep a bucket of water or garden hose nearby in case of emergency because you'll never know when you might need it. And please ensure that the fire is fully extinguished and cold before discarding a disposable barbecue.

[00:21:58.710] - Host

For more information about barbecues, please head to our website on www.lancsfireresuce.org.uk/bbq

[00:22:09.270] - Host

And if you'd like to know more about becoming an on call firefighter, visit lancsfirerescue.org.uk/oncall

[00:22:17.650] - Host

Both website links will be in our episode notes

[00:22:20.720] - Host

And remember, if you liked our episode, please like and subscribe. And let's make Lancashire safer together.