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Couple urges fire safety after blaze

CONYERS - Mary Lynn and Pete Austin said they are treating this Christmas as something special this year after almost losing everything to an early morning fire Thursday.

The fire was contained to one room where they had stored all of their Christmas presents. Mary Lynn Austin said the presents were not destroyed, but they received some smoke damage.

"We had about 50 to 60 presents, all wrapped, and they're all covered in soot and ash and foam from the fire extinguisher now," she said. "It's not a pretty sight, but the fact that our house is still standing is."

Nine years ago, the Austins were not so fortunate. A fire then destroyed their Arlin Street house in north Rockdale County. "We lost everything but the clothes on our backs," Austin said.

That fire was believed to have started by an electrical short from a refrigerator in the garage. The couple rebuilt and some of the first items they bought for the new house were fire extinguishers for the garage, kitchen and utility room.

Mary Lynn Austin said she believed having those extinguishers this time around helped keep the fire contained to one room.

Rockdale County firefighters told the couple they traced the cause of the fire to a heater in an aquarium that shorted. Austin said firefighters suggested they plug any type of continuously running appliance into a safety strip.

"I'm not sure I would have recognized that as being a potential fire hazard," she said. "Sometimes people don't notice small things like that because they are so used to them."

The fire at the Austins' house occurred about 3 a.m. Thursday. Austin said she was awakened by their dog, Angie. When she sat up in bed, she smelled the smoke that was slowly filling the house.

She woke up Pete, who works as a medical lab technician at Rockdale Medical Center, and called 911. The dispatcher told the Austins to get out of the house, but when they reached the front door, the couple decided to try to put the fire out with the extinguishers.

Mary Lynn Austin said they encourage everyone to have fire extinguishers in their houses and use safety power strips.

"We could have lost our whole house again," she said. "It was a very traumatic experience for me because there are so many things that are non-replaceable. They are things we are used to having around like pictures and even the knickknacks from our grandchildren."

The Austins' experience serves was a reminder for residents to be mindful of fire risks associated with this time of year.

According to the National Fire Prevention Association, electrical distribution and lighting equipment were involved in an estimated 19,100 home structure fires from 1999 to 2003. In each of those fires, some type of electrical failure was the leading factor contributing to ignition.

Christmas trees and decorations add to the amount of combustible materials in the home. The use of wood-burning fireplaces this time of year also increases the chance of a house fire, according to the NFPA.

Jay Jones can be reached at jay.jones@rockdalecitizen.com.