Heather Watson's water heater caught fire Wednesday afternoon.
Her oldest child, Craig Farmer, 13, noticed the smoke. He called his stepfather, then his mother. He told his two brothers, James, 8, and Tony, 7, to get out.
"I thought something was wrong with the swamp cooler because it was coming out of the ceiling near the swamp cooler," Farmer said. "I went to the garage and saw smoke pouring out."
Meanwhile, Watson was over at a neighbor's house babysitting for a few minutes.
"I get a call," Watson said. "And there's smoke coming out of my house and my kids are home alone. This isn't a good thing."
Fire Chief Marty deMasi said firefighters -- 10 on the scene -- were dispatched to 306 E. McKamey St. at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.
"There was a small fire in the water heater closet, about $400 worth of damage," deMasi said. "The 13-year-old smelled smoke and saw the smoke coming from the rear of the house. They pretty much put the fire out, but they took a big risk there. We recommend calling 911 first. They were very fortunate."
Farmer said he dumped water on the fire to extinguish it.
"I filled a measuring cup up with water and then poured it over the fire, and then turned the gas cap off," Farmer said. "I was just worried about my brothers. I told them to get out of the house, but James insisted on helping me."
After the engines arrived, firefighters employed the department's thermal imaging camera to check for undetected hot spots.
"It'll show you the temperature difference so you can find the hidden heat, and in smoky situations, other heat sources and humans," deMasi said.
The winter months, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, are the most combustible time of year nationwide. Central and fixed heating sources and chimneys top the list of wintertime fire hazards; water heaters account for 15 percent of these blazes.
DeMasi said water-heater fires are uncommon in Payson, and as people build houses with central heating instead of fireplaces and wood stoves, blazes caused by burning wood are on the decrease.
"(House fires) are pretty well spread out over the year," deMasi said. "A lot of folks have gotten away from fire and wood to create heat."
Although deMasi declined to comment on the exact cause of the fire, deferring to the insurance company's investigation, he did say the heat melted a plastic water line near the appliance. The water from the pipe extinguished the majority of the fire.
Watson said the fire destroyed her water heater. She'll have to replace it. In the meantime, if her family wants their water hot, they have to boil it.
"The fire burned up the back of the water heater," Watson said. "Everything is wood paneling. If the kids hadn't been there, the fire would have burned everything."
DeMasi recommended basic fire awareness to stay safe.
"The temptation is for people to store things with the water heater," deMasi said. "It might seem like a good place to put a broom, but it's a recipe for disaster. A maintenance person should check out any kind of gas appliance. If there's a lot of soot, have it looked at.
"Just general housekeeping is a good thing. My own personal observation of house fires is a lot of times people have a lot of accumulation outside their houses, even indoors. Clean it up."