At around 4 a.m. on August 30 last year, a volatile brew of chemicals, weather, human error, and unfortunate scheduling set fire to one of Strum Construction's biggest-ever remodeling projects three days before completion. Causing $110,000 worth of damage and incalculable stress, the fire almost undid the 10-year-old company, of Asheville, N.C.

A lapse in judgment ignited the flames. A crew of subcontracted painters, after a day spent staining floors and trim, tossed their stain-soaked rags in a pile in a bedroom rather than into a Dumpster. “Stain is a mixture of chemicals, mostly linseed oil and kerosene,” says Bruce Strum, who was asleep at his own home when the fire broke out. “As linseed oil dries out, it creates its own heat,” enough, he says, “to launch the space shuttle.” Making matters worse, the weather that night — temperature in the mid-60s, fairly high humidity — was “ideal for spontaneous combustion.”

By the time Strum's clients realized that their home was on fire, the fire had burned through the subfloor, crawled along the joists, and caused damage so extensive that “we had to go all the way back to the frame,” Strum says. “We literally took everything out — insulation, drywall, trim.” Rebuilding took five months, about two weeks longer than the first go-around, due to demolition and cleaning.

20/20 HINDSIGHT There's no sure way to disaster-proof a remodeling business, but it's usually instructive to look back and identify any mistakes, shortcuts, omissions, or denials that might have allowed little problems to snowball into big ones, and big problems to turn calamitous.

Jobsites weren't secured, and rains poured in, intruders entered, accidents happened. Risky practices were tolerated for years. Hunches were ignored, or questions weren't asked, and difficult clients disrupted cash flow or poisoned morale. Job costs weren't tracked as rigorously as they might have been. Files weren't backed up, or passwords weren't changed. You put too much trust in someone — or something, like the wording of a contract.

In the case of Strum Construction, while forensic evidence identified the stain rags as the catalyst, some minor provisions might have prevented the fire or mitigated the damage. For instance, the project manager was on vacation the week of the fire. If someone else had been tasked with his end-of-day walk-through, would they have spotted the rags and disposed of them safely?

In addition, while both companies were insured, it was months before insurers released any checks. Strum had to finance the rebuilding himself, which he managed by begging, borrowing, and spending the capital he had built up in years of good relationships with vendors and suppliers. “Floating a $110,000 problem for 88 days for a small company is unreal,” he says.

At the same time, he surmises that many companies would never survive such an ordeal. “I would be out of business, dead in the water, if the painter wasn't insured,” he says. Likewise if his trade partners hadn't had his back during his time of need.

Five months after the fire, Strum summarizes it as “welcome to Hell 101. It was excruciatingly unpleasant,” and certainly an eye-opener, he says. Prior to it, his company's worst brush with danger was an employee getting dust in his eye.

STANDARDS OF PRACTICE “You're never going to prevent a tarp from blowing off in a 90-mile-per-hour freak thunderstorm,” says Tim Faller, a consultant and REMODELING columnist. “But,” he says, “there are things you can do to stem the tide” of the many jobsite disasters that can strike, and to maintain your clients' trust and goodwill when they do.