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It started, Ronnell Fields guesses, with a short-circuiting phone charger in a dining-room outlet. While Fields and Travis Bruce, his 13-year-old stepson, slept in the rear of the house, flames ate their way up the curtains.

Their pet Quaker parrot, Six—named for her birthday, June 6—was in her cage, which hung in the dining-room entranceway. As the room grew hotter, Six escaped her cage and flapped down the hallway toward the bedrooms. She beat her wings against the bedroom doors, screeching loudly.

Fields woke, he says, wondering, What the hell’s wrong with Six? He opened the door and saw moving smoke and orange light. From the hallway, he saw the curtains and wall burning. He stuck his head into Travis’ room and yelled, then slammed the door, searched unsuccessfully for a fire extinguisher, and called 911.

“You always hear, ‘Stop, drop, and roll,’ but you never know how you’re going to react in your first experience with a fire,” says Fields, 36. “None of that stuff came into play. I was just shouting, ‘Fire, fire! Police, police! Get here!’”

Travis says he does not remember what woke him. He crawled out of bed with the idea of getting a drink of water. His door handle was warm, and when he opened the door, a wall of hot, black smoke pressed in. He shut the door and sized up the situation.

He had a fire extinguisher by his bed, but it was barely larger than a banana. Burglar bars blocked escape through the windows. He considered climbing into the attic through a hatch in his closet ceiling, hoping to reach a small roof window. Smoke began coming in under his door.

Fields, in the next room, was still talking with the fire department. By the time he got off the phone, the dining-room wall was completely ablaze. “Bits and pieces of the ceiling were falling,” Fields says. “The insulation was going everywhere, setting everything on fire.”

The lights went out; everything was illuminated by flame. A 55-gallon fish tank exploded in the dining room. Dizzied by smoke, Fields threw open his bedroom window and hefted his 70-pound pit bull, Foxy Brown, through it. Suddenly, firefighters were all around him, trying to get him to go out the front door, past the burning room. “Nope, I’m going right out here,” said Fields, and leapt through the window.

A firefighter grabbed Travis from his room. Keeping under the hanging layer of smoke, they crept down the hall. Travis heard steam hissing and the firemen breaking windows to let smoke out. He knocked his head on the front-door frame and stumbled out into the falling snow, past a huge oscillating fan firefighters were using to channel smoke. Travis was coughing up ash.

Fields was outside in his shorts, sharing an oxygen mask with Foxy Brown. “My whole face was black,” he says. “Everything on me was black.”

Fields watched the EMS crew carry a parade of animals from the house: Diamond the bull mastiff, cherry-eyed and unconscious on a sheet; Garfield the cat; Fred the guinea pig; and finally, clutched in a firefighter’s glove, the soot-stained and shrieking Six.

“She was the first one to let us know about the fire, and the last one out of the house,” Fields says. “Thank God for the bird.” —John Metcalfe