Journey of Healing Through Fire Advocacy
Written by: Christy Montoya
I am a Burn Survivor.
Nearly three years ago, the unimaginable happened.
On March 18, 2016, my family and I went on a weekend road trip to visit our friends in the Virginia mountains. After dinner, family fun, and planning for weekend activities, we all went to bed late.
Less than two hours later, we woke up to an inferno.
My friend was able to activate the adults into action, but we needed to move faster than the fire. We all made several attempts to gather the four children who were sleeping on the top floor of a three-story house. It was dark, chaotic and just plain terrifying.
The house was fully engulfed only minutes after we realized there was a fire. It was devastating and fatal. The fire took the entire home and the lives of our friends’ two boys, 5 and 10, in the middle of the night. Our girls were saved.
In the days, weeks, and months post-fire, and still to this day, we have been asked many questions about our fire. No place is off limits: grocery store lines, soccer field sidelines, shopping malls, church….
In the beginning, it was hard to not feel like people just wanted the details out of their own morbid curiosity. I was taken aback by how forward others can be in asking me to recount the story.
I have endured the sideways glances and curious eyes. I have noticed the shift in attention from what I say to how I look. I’ve been forced to understand I can no longer walk upon the earth the same as before this life-changing journey began.
I had to learn what I wanted to share and when, carefully considering not only my own boundaries and what was best for me, but also taking care of them. It isn’t an easy story to share, and it brings up a lot of fear and emotion in others as well as me.
Just because they’re curious doesn’t mean they’re ready to hear about it.
I am an Advocate.
Our story hit the news, and we were interviewed on local TV news stations. This gave us captive audiences to educate about fire prevention and what to do in case of an actual fire.
We were asked to do a fire prevention talk and activities at our kids’ school. Escorting them through a smoke room was really empowering for the kids and their families. We’ve also done fire awareness segments on a local TV channel, and we shared a week of daily fire safety tips on a local radio station.
In preparing for these opportunities, I researched the latest statistics in fire education. It amazed me to learn of my own misconceptions. The lack of knowledge and misinformation regarding fires has put a responsibility of advocacy on my heart to educate anyone and everyone on fire prevention and fire safety.
I realized people had the wrong idea about what actually happens with fire, and not only this fire, but all types of fires resulting physical burns. I understand now that it’s only natural for others to be curious.
While it’s difficult to relive the fire in conversation, we have also realized the importance of using our experience to educate others. I have naturally been drawn to three topics: 1) being burned, and the differentiation between the injury and the healing journey; 2) house fire survival; and 3) limiting the severity of burns or avoiding them altogether.
One of the biggest misconceptions is the belief that a smoke alarm will save you from a house fire. In fact, a smoke alarm won’t go off until enough smoke has accumulated. Fires can turn deadly within 2-3 minutes after they start.
I’m often asked by inquisitive strangers and well-meaning friends, Was there a smoke alarm? And my answer is always, YES! Yes, there were many smoke alarms going off, and clearly it wasn’t enough. You must be prepared, you must be educated, you must practice. People are interested in learning more about smoke alarms: how they work, where they should be placed, when and how they should be tested.
Knowing your escape routes is equally, if not more important — not only at home but anywhere you stay overnight and whenever you have a new house guest.
People always ask how to handle different types of fires. There are specific ways to stop grease fires, electrical fires, or accidental combustion. In a panic, you are simply not equipped unless you’ve practiced those protocols. Personally, I say get out and stay out. Call 911 and know that material things are not worth being injured or dying over.
Some people ask, What happened to you? I got burned trying to rescue the children. All the other adults were also injured in different ways during different attempts to save the other two children. I just happened to get hit with flames — literally.
Another frequent question is How did the fire start?The truth is, we will never know what caused our fire. The Fire Marshalls and Investigators declared it unknown. This is very frustrating to all of us, but it doesn’t change a thing. This question is very important for fire prevention efforts, though. House fires can start in many different ways. Some are electrical, and are often undetected until the fire has already started. Cooking fires include grease fires and burns from scalding hot water. Unattended candles and the fumes catching fire in gasoline cans while grilling or working on automobiles or landscaping machinery are also frequent causes of house fires.
In the research I’ve done, I learned that being burned in a house fire like ours is the least likely way to be injured. Accidents around bonfires and scalding hot water on kitchen stoves are the most frequents causes, and the most preventable.
I used to be that mom who felt like I could teach my kids safety indirectly, by modeling it, but now I make intentional choices and create intentional conversations with practicing methods we often talk about. I would rather be safe than sorry.
I’ve met children who have been burned and read journeys of adults burned as children. Now that I’ve gone through it myself, I cannot imagine the struggle it would be for a child, so I make those conversations with our children and their friends a priority in ways I never did before. If I can to prevent one child from having to go through that, it would make all the difference in the world.
Within days of being in the burn unit, I was surrounded by family and friends. What I didn’t expect was the fellow burn survivor who came to sit with me, making himself completely available. I had no idea what to expect moving forward and, clearly, I had a lot to get through. As if the burns aren’t bad enough, there is all the other trauma that comes along with them. Knowing I wasn’t alone was absolutely everything. This message would be repeated to me throughout my healing journey, and I am so grateful for the burn community that has embraced me and my family.
When I was in inpatient care, another survivor told me about a burn survivor group that met monthly at the hospital. I’ll never forget going to my first meeting, which also happened to be their reunion. It was my introduction to an incredible and unique community of people who were willing to stand for each other in ways no one else could.
They lead me to the Phoenix SOAR program, and a whole new group of amazing friends and advocates. Attending Phoenix World Burn Conference with my family was essential and life changing, and I re-committed to making myself available to other trauma burn survivors and continuing to pass it forward.
I have found healing through yoga, massage therapy, compression garments, physical therapy, and returning to my normal activities. During each of these activities, I’ve been learning there is a lot more that can be offered for burn survivors outside traditional medical protocols and surgeries.
Rock climbing is one example, something I particularly enjoy with my family. Yoga is great for flexibility and stretching the scar tissue during healing, which can improve range of motion. The zen space for my ever-going mind monkeys is an added bonus. I was lucky enough to have a personal friend who took scar tissue classes and then gifted me with scar tissue massages three times a day for the first year of healing. Amazing. I also had family and friends who regularly massaged me.
For me, healing and advocacy have become one and the same.
I have learned to balance my emotional recovery with direct involvement in the burn community. I truly believe that is strength in numbers. I have not, nor will I continue to do this on my own. I know we can accomplish so much more together.
In advocating for public education, fire prevention, knowledge and awareness surrounding fires, burns and other traumas, I am fully healing. We all have a story, and many of us have had tragedies.
I’ve learned it’s what we do with those experiences that matters most.