‘Cheap toaster cost me everything’
LAURA Prael had just turned 23 when she lost everything in a house fire.
It was not unlike any other day, she got up for work, made her toast to go, and left the house. She was in a meeting and missed a very important phone call.
"I'm ringing to inform you there's been an extensive house fire at your address in Erina, I need you to come back to the property immediately," Laura recalls of the voicemail left on her phone.
While she was living on the Central Coast in New South Wales at the time, Laura was commuting to Newcastle every day for work. Panicked, not knowing what had happened to her cat or the state of her home, Laura raced back to find half of the house completely destroyed, the other half damaged by smoke.
"When I drove down to the end of the road there were two fire trucks in my driveway and the firemen were just sitting in there waiting for me," she told news.com.au.
"As I approached the house I could just see that it was half gone. It was black, the roof had caved in."
The sergeant gave Laura a mask, told her to collect anything that could be stolen. Everything was black from smoke damage, even on the other side of the house where the bedrooms were. Laura got a blackened pillow case and put her jewellery in that. There was no sign of her beloved cat, Livvy at the house.
Her possessions were reduced to just a packed bag of clean clothes and essentials she had in her car, in anticipation for a Kings of Leon concert in Sydney that night.
Not having much family in Australia, Laura had nowhere to go, she was forced to live out of her car, showering at friends' houses or the gym. Although she lived with her father at the time, he was overseas, so at 23, Laura was forced to sort out a new place to live and deal with the insurance company on her own.
"I couldn't get on the phone to Dad, so I didn't know if we had contents insurance, I didn't know what to do, where to go.
"They (the insurance company) said that they were prioritising families, there were a few other house fires around that time of year in March. They said, 'Because you're a single girl, you're not our priority'."
Luckily Laura did secure a place in North Avoca a few days later, but all the insurance company could give her was a single bed mattress. It took three weeks for her to get a fridge and later furniture was donated to her by members of the community.
Although she thought her cat was lost in the fire, Laura didn't have a chance to grieve, her phone was constantly buzzing with calls from the insurance company and realtors.
"I didn't care about anything I had lost in the house. I didn't care about photos, I didn't care about my clothes or my possessions, all I cared about was my cat," Laura said.
"I had to have a meeting with the police a few days later just to make sure there were no suspicious circumstances around the fire.
"When I went back to the house to have the interview with the police, I found my cat, she was hiding in one of the bedrooms," Laura said. "She was covered in soot and she was trying to clean herself and every time she'd lick, she'd sneeze. I took her to the vet, she's fine."
The cause of the fire was actually the toaster.
Laura said the toaster was cheap and even though there was no bread in it after she left for work, it was still decompressed and crumbs caught alight, causing a slow burning fire.
Her dad ultimately decided to give Laura the money he would have used for a flight home to cover expenses such as a bond and necessities. Although it was a stressful experience, especially for someone so young, Laura is happy she was forced to do everything by herself.
"It turned me into this really strong and independent person and it made me really resilient and it's changed the way I look at life now," she said.
Now 30, Laura has moved on with her life and is the founding director of a digital creative agency, LEP Digital.
Laura now takes fire safety seriously, she still recalls advice given to her by one of the firefighters.
"When you leave the house, don't leave things plugged in. Even if you've switched it off at the wall, don't even leave it plugged in, because the circuit can still come through.
"They said 'nine times out of 10 we go into houses with house fires and everything is plugged in at the wall, everything is switched on'."
Laura now unplugs appliances before she goes to bed and leaving the house, particularly the toaster, kettle and heaters.
New research from home safety company, Nest, shows most Australian's don't know they only have a matter of minutes to escape a house fire.
It would take about 30 minutes for a fire to engulf a room in the 1970s, but now, according to nest, with appliances and clutter, it can take less than five minutes.
Laura also suggests investing in high quality appliances, if possible. Following the fire, despite not having much money, Laura invested in a good quality toaster.
"It's so important to spend that little bit of extra money to know the quality."
And she changes the batteries on her smoke alarm as soon as it starts making those annoying noises.
"When it starts beeping, you know the battery is starting to run out and it needs to be replaced. I replace it right away. That's super important with me."
Nest found 40 per cent of Australians find a beeping smoke alarm annoying and85 per cent of Aussies neglect to check their smoke detectors regularly enough - once a month is recommended by fire authorities.
"I know some people who just take the batteries out if they start beeping," Laura said. "They're like, 'I can't stand the beeping I'll just take the batteries out', next thing they're left out for three, four, five months."