Quick thinking by 7-year-old Jayla Pedersen saved two people's lives when a lightning strike started a fire at a neighbor's home that was called in at 6:49 a.m. Sept. 2 at a trailer park at 791 Western Ave. North in Park Rapids.
A second grader at Century School in Park Rapids, Jayla said it was early in the morning when she woke up and smelled smoke. "My little brother, Nodin, (age 4) was sleeping and he didn't smell it. I was the only one who smelled it," she said.
Jayla said she went and woke up her grandma, Janelle Pedersen, and told her about the smoke. "She was panicking," she said. "She looked everywhere and then she went to the front window and saw somebody's house on fire. She called 911 and the police officers and fire department came. Two people were in the house, a lady and a man, very old. The man was sleeping where it started on fire. Good thing that he's alive though. They live in a different house now."
When asked if she knew what a hero is, she said. "Uh-huh, like me. The girl who was really really old, she gave me a hug and stuff. If they couldn't get out, they could die."
Janelle said she has talked with Jayla about what to do if there was ever a fire at their house and where to meet.
"I believe she's learned a lot of it from school, too," she said. "Jayla's got a glow about her. I'm very proud of her. I think she's a hero."
Janelle said she had awoken earlier when there was a big bang, thinking a transformer had been hit by lightning during the thunderstorm, but then went back to sleep.
"When Jayla woke me up and said she smelled smoke, I got up and looked in my house to make sure nothing was burning," she said. "I came to my bedroom, which is in the side facing the road and saw flames from my neighbor's place. That's when we went into action, calling 911 and getting over there to make sure everybody got out safely. I was on the phone with 911 as I was running off my deck over there. It happened so fast that you just respond. Your adrenaline is what's pushing you and you just do what you have to do to save people."
Janelle said their elderly neighbors, Donny and Linda, were sleeping in their trailer across the road, unaware of the fire that threatened to engulf their home.
"I sent my son (Josh Pedersen, 27) right into the house," she said. "I said we've got to go in and get them out. Donny came out and me and one of the neighbors helped Linda get to my place because she has a hard time walking."
Janelle said lightning hit a large tree on the property, stripping the bark from top to bottom. She said she thinks the lightning followed electrical cables to the garage and trailer house.
"By the time I got over here, the garage was fully engulfed and the trees were starting to candle up at the top," she said. "As soon as I realized how big the fire was, I went to the neighboring trailers getting people out. There was quite a bit of smoke, and you could definitely feel the heat."
She said the fire was so hot it melted a tarp over a snowblower on the property next door as well as a motorcycle seat and taillight.
Janelle explained that the Donny and Linda have been neighbors since before Jayla was born. "Everybody in there knows everybody and looks out for everybody," she said. "I'm just thankful Jayla was smart enough to wake me up so I could see what was going on. Inside the mobile home was a lot of smoke where Donny and Linda were sleeping. The fire department got there and they were able to get it out underneath the trailer before the flames went up into the house."
The garage and its contents were destroyed, but Janelle said most of the damage to the trailer home was limited to the exterior. After the fire, everyone was able to return to their homes, except Donny and Linda.
Terry Long, an assistant fire chief with the Park Rapids Fire Department, was one of the first firefighters on the scene that morning. The Menahga Fire Department also assisted. Long said he has not seen an investigative report determining the cause of the fire.
He said when they arrived, the woodshed in back was on fire, and the fire migrated to the trailer house.
"People were coming out of the house when I arrived," Long said. "City police were on scene helping people get out. The trailer was starting to get warm. There was fire underneath it, but there were no visible flamers in the trailer."
He said as far as he knows, no one required medical treatment, although there was an ambulance on scene.
Long said he did not know about Jayla's part in helping save her neighbors. "This is the first I've heard of it," he said. "I'm glad it happened. I think that's a great thing."
October is National Fire Prevention month.
"Part of what we do with fire prevention is teach kids how to recognize fire dangers," Long said. "We will be visiting the school to do a program. We also have the kindergartners come to the fire hall for a conversation about how fires start and what to do if there is a fire."
He said the goal is to make children aware of fire prevention and what to do if there is a fire. "Everybody should talk to their kids, especially when they come home after our program at school," he said. "Talk about a safe place to meet when there is a fire to make sure everyone is out and who to call. Have a conversation with those kids when they come home and reinforce some of those things we talked about. That's what we love to see, those conversations about how to get out safely, so kids know not to go back into the house because they forgot their teddy bear or their blanket."
He said it is also important to replace smoke alarm batteries at least once a month.
"We talk about giving your smoke alarm a birthday and giving it a new battery as a present, whether it is chirping (which indicates a low battery) or not," he said.
The fire department gives away smoke alarms at their annual open house. "Our goal is to have at least one smoke detector in every home," he said.
Residents who are not able to afford smoke detectors or are physically unable to install an alarm can go to getasmokealarm.org and submit a request. The Red Cross and its partners also has a limited number of specialized bedside alarms for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. Submit the online form or call 1-800-RED-CROSS.
Families are invited to meet local fire department members, climb aboard the fire truck, and learn about fire safety from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20 at Cwikla Ace Hardware on Hwy. 34 in Park Rapids.