A few hours after ringing in the new year, Officer Jenni Byrd of the San Jose Police Department spotted a growing fire through the window of a woman's home. She and Officer Kris Kubasta rousted the sleeping woman and her friend upstairs and brought them outside to safety. Kubasta put out the fire before the fire department arrived. For their actions, Officers Byrd and Kubasta have been named the September 2012 Officers of the Month by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
The year 2011 had just officially begun, and it was a busy time for the San Jose Police Department. Officers Byrd and Kubasta had completed their shifts, but they volunteered to hold over and help out. The agency doesn't normally run two-man cars, but the officers decided it would be easier to clear the calls if they were together.
As they drove through an intersection after verifying that a reported disturbance was no longer a problem, Byrd looked out the passenger side and something caught her eye. She saw through someone's window something flickering above the fireplace, but she wasn't sure if it was a leftover Christmas decoration blinking on and off, or a fire.
"I looked over at Kubasta and I said, 'Is that a fire?' He said, 'I don't know,'" Byrd remembers. "We couldn't really tell at first because of the way it was recessed into the house, and because the smoke was still up high and out of view."
The two decided to check it out and parked near the home. They walked up the front steps to get a clearer view through the large bay window where Byrd had seen the flickering.
"We don't get that many fires, so it took a second to sink in. We were looking at each other, thinking, It’s really burning," Kubasta says.
What most concerned the officers was that they saw an older woman asleep in an armchair in front of the fireplace, a celebratory glass of champagne still in her hand. After calling the fire department, they banged on the window and then banged on the front door to wake her up. When she finally answered the door, the woman was oblivious to the fire and asked what was the matter. When they told her that her house was on fire, she inexplicably ran back into the house.
Byrd and Kubasta were able to coax her out and have her sit outside, but she was disoriented, apparently in shock. When they asked the woman if there was anyone else inside, she answered cryptically, "I'm the only one downstairs." Unsure of what that meant, both officers ran upstairs through smoke and found a woman asleep in one of the bedrooms. They woke her up, informed her of the fire, and were able to get her safely outside.
Once the only occupants were safe, Kubasta realized he had a fire extinguisher in the trunk of his car that might help quell the fire. The fire department hadn’t shown up, and he thought he should do what he could. The officer had just successfully put out the flames in the woman's living room when the fire trucks arrived.
"We didn’t realize how close it was until the fire guys told us how fast fire spreads, and that there weren’t any working smoke alarms in the house at all," says Kubasta.
The fire was found to have been started by a Christmas tree that ignited, a common occurrence during the holidays. But because of Byrd and Kubasta, the only damage was to the living room. According to the firefighters who responded to the scene, because of the time of night and the lack of smoke detectors, if not for the officers' intervention, the women would have most likely died in the fire before anyone became aware of the blaze.
"If we had just driven on, who knows?" says Byrd. "If you see something and something doesn't look right, even if you feel silly, just check it out. I'm so glad we did."