Columbia, SC (WLTX) - "Smoke is what we worry about," says Camden Fire Chief John Bowers.
When a fire starts in a home, it's smoke that spreads fast and puts the homeowner in danger of not making it out alive.
"I woke up to ... my daughter was crying," said Amy Sparks whose apartment in Sumter caught fire in October 2011.
Across town, a Sumter Police Officer heard a call on the radio, "that there was a fire." Officer Lamar Sparks raced home. His wife and baby were inside. His home was on fire.
"She was screaming and I could hear her screaming in the background," said Lamar Sparks when he recalls that night.
His wife Amy remembers, "Stuff was falling next to me. Like the roof was falling. The smoke was billowing out of the sliding glass door."
"From the time you see fire, you may have a minute or less to make your escape," said Camden Fire Chief John Bowers. "If you haven't self removed from that fire after a minute, the chances of you surviving that fire are very slim."
Bowers showed WLTX that when a fire starts, it's a race against the clock, and he did this by burning down a living room, part of some of the training at the Camden Training center for firefighters.
"You have to imagine it takes time for the fire to even be discovered by the homeowner," said Bowers. "They have to be aware enough to call for help. Dispatch has to dispatch the fire department. The firefighters have to get ready at the station and leave as quickly as possible. And then respond to the call. So, there's alot of delay built in there."
Just seconds after the room was set on fire, flames reached the roof.
A couch placed in the corner of the room hasn't caught fire yet, but heat from the flames melts fabric and stuffing in the couch's frame.
The flames look dangerous, but firefighters say they worry about deadly thick black smoke.
"Smoke is what we worry about," said Bowers. "Fire victims usually succumbs to smoke long before the flames ever get to them."
We visited Camden's Training Center, where firefighters learn to combat deadly smoke.
After starting a fire, smoke fills the training center quickly, taking away oxygen and view.
"Most of the fire victims I've seen that have died in fires have been literally just feet from open oxygen by a door way or window but they didn't make it," said Bowers. "And this is in their own home, the place they know the best."
Bowers says smoke leaves people stranded because they can't breath or see.
"There's not a lot of new and inventive ways people get in trouble. You see people fall into the same traps that they did last year and the year before," he said. "One of the things that cause a lot of fires are human mistakes. You put a pot on the stove and the phone rings, someone knocks on the door, or you get involved in the soap opera on TV. So you get distracted and that's a large cause of fires in the home."
But before a fire ever starts, there's something that's free that you can do in your home to give yourself more time to get out and keep yourself safe: close your bedroom door.
Side by side, a room with a closed door has less smoke inside because the door acts as a smoke barrier.
"If you're in a situation where your house is open and the doorways are open, smoke is easily going to move from one compartment to the next and it really reduces the amount of time you have to escape," said Bowers. "If you're in a home thats on fire and in a bedroom with a closed door, that offers you a lot greater opportunity to escape."