Jeff Jardine

Low prices, high risk: A Wal-Mart patron faces fire like a leader

Christie Sipes happened to be in the Ceres Wal-Mart on Hatch Road when a fire broke out on Monday.  she grabbed a fire extinguisher and helped put out the blaze.
Christie Sipes happened to be in the Ceres Wal-Mart on Hatch Road when a fire broke out on Monday. she grabbed a fire extinguisher and helped put out the blaze. Modesto Bee

You're shopping in a department store and somebody yells, "Help! Help! Help! ... Fire! Fire! Fire!"

Three possibilities come to mind:

You can yell back, "You're on your own!" and bolt for the exits.

You can mosey on over for a look-see, knowing you'll be shooed outside the minute the firefighters arrive.

Or, you can grab a fire extinguisher and pitch in to put out the flames.

Modesto's Christie Sipes took the latter option last week when fire broke out in the menswear section of the Ceres Wal-Mart. She'd been in the store that night, Jan. 21, browsing at the jewelry counter when the blaze began at about 10 p.m.

"A manager came running over and had the employee in the jewelry department call Code Red over the intercom," Sipes said. "I knew what that meant, plain and simple. Fire."

Sipes, 40, is a student in the Emergency Medical Technician program at Modesto Junior College. I wrote about her once before, in

July 2006, as she celebrated the 30th anniversary of her kidney transplant. Her mother, Oleta, donated the kidney that saved Christie's life.

Sipes is one of those people who refuses to live her life in a bubble. She doesn't shy away from much of anything, even though she's endured

a variety of physical ailments -- including her kidney disease -- attributed to a condition called Fanconi syndrome.

She's worked as a volunteer for the American Red Cross, helping with evacuation efforts when the San Joaquin River flooded in the Newman area in 2006. She's taking the EMT course with hopes of someday working on an ambulance crew.

So when the fire struck, she went over to see if she could help. One of the store managers ran back toward the menswear area carrying an extinguisher. When another employee struggled to get the pin out to activate one of the devices, Sipes grabbed it. The trick to these things, she learned in her emergency classes, is to twist the plastic tab and pull it. At that point, she began spraying the flames, which were engulfing socks on a partition.

"The manager was using her extinguisher on the center of the flames," Sipes said. "I started at the bottom."

Sipes said she went to the other side of the aisle to douse the flames on that side, and then returned to where the manager was spraying.

"(Store employees) handed me another extinguisher, but it ran out (of retardant)," Sipes said. "I told them to get every single extinguisher they could find."

Several store employees arrived, each carrying an extinguisher.

"They said, 'You don't work here,' and made me leave," Sipes said. She left all right -- in an ambulance. She suffered smoke inhalation and had to be hospitalized briefly.

"Breathing and asthma issues," she said. "The worst asthma attack I've ever had."

A couple of days later, she returned to the store to visit the manager.

"They had a picture of me," Sipes said. "Some of the employees said, 'We know her,' because I'm in there so often. But they didn't know my name."

Wal-Mart will show its appreciation by paying the medical bills she accrued that day, store manager Mary Lopez said.

Fire investigators said they believe the fire was started by an arsonist, which makes sense.

Socks usually don't come with a diamond-shaped warning sign that reads "Caution: Flammable."

BEATING THE ODDS -- Stephanie House, whose family refused to take her off of life support after she tried to take her own life in November, awoke from her coma Dec. 19 -- her 28th birthday.

She was transported Jan. 2 from Memorial Medical Center in Modesto to the Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, family friend Michell Davis Aartman said.

House was shot in the head during what authorities say was a gang-related altercation in Modesto on June 13, 2004. She survived to testify twice against the man accused of being the gunman, Javier Mata. There were two mistrials before Mata pleaded guilty in December, receiving a 10-year prison sentence.

Aartman said House has responded with smiles and eye movement even though she has been unable to talk. I wrote about the family's plight in my Dec. 2 column.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at or 578-2383.