Archived Story

Complacency kills

Published 5:57pm Thursday, January 2, 2014

When I was in high school, I took a weekend safety course on rock climbing.

The class was really a formality, as I had already been climbing for almost a year. When my mom saw some of the photos I started bringing back, however, she encouraged me to at least go to a basic course.

I didn’t really learn anything from the course. I already knew all the knots, how to belay and the finer points of rappelling. In fact, I don’t remember anything the instructor said except for one phrase – complacency kills.

The idea is simple. If you do something over and over again, it becomes routine.

However, you should never let your guard down just because of the familiarity.

Rock climbing, the instructor said, is inherently dangerous. The second you forget about that danger – i.e. start taking shortcuts like skipping a safety inspection – could be your last.

It’s a phrase I remember before I pack up on every hike, before I strap into a kayak or harness up to slide down a rock face.

It is a phrase that also could have served me well over Christmas break.

When it is cold outside and I am home at my parents’ house, my mom always wants a fire in the fireplace.

It’s a chore I am often called to do and one that on the whole I don’t mind doing, as I have had a predilection toward playing with fire since I was a child.

I stacked some logs in the fireplace. My parents’ fireplace has a gas starter. The starter, however, was covered with ashes from four days worth of fires.

I turned the gas on low and gave my long-stemmed lighter a couple of flicks.


I turned the gas off and decided to take another tactic. I tore a small piece of cardboard off one of the many empty Christmas boxes and placed it in the fireplace.

I lit the cardboard and turned the gas on higher.

The cardboard kept burning, but there were no signs of life from the starter.

I turned the gas higher and leaned in to see if I could hear gas hissing.


A burst of flames billowed out of the fireplace.

I stood back, wide-eyed and surprised to find that nothing in the room was on fire.

“That was close!” I said.

“Are you OK?” my mom asked.

“Yeah, I am fine,” I replied.

Then I caught a whiff of an unmistakable scent – the acrid odor of burnt hair.

When I went to the bathroom mirror, I caught the first glimpse of the damage. My right eyelashes lost a good 2 millimeters, and my eyebrow had been singed. All over my head were light brown curlicues from where the fire singed the ends of my hair.

I was embarrassed, but the incident hurt my pride more than anything.

It could have been a lot worse, however. I am not much one for New Year’s resolutions, but I will tell you this. Complacency kills – play with fire, and you are going to get burned.

Nelson is managing editor for The Outlook.