As a way of helping family and friends keep up with how our family is doing as we recover from our home fire, I’ll be trying to regularly blog about our progress and tell our story.
First, the story itself. How did our house burn down?
At about 10:15, I was pleasantly enjoying the rain falling outside. I was reading in bed and glancing at my Facebook feed. All it all, it was a nice night and I was pondering finishing getting ready for bed. At 10:45 or so, Sean’s and my phone lit up with a tornado warning. I hadn’t noticed any of the normal things I would expect with a tornado–hail or the train roar–though the rain was falling harder and the wind had come up. We hesitated getting the boys out of bed because how often had alerts come on our phone that amounted to nothing. But listening to the wind and looking outside convinced me that whatever was happening was not normal.
Getting boys up and out of bed was difficult–though the dog listened and followed directions exactly. So, we’re all gathered in the windowless office, figuring out how bad the storm might be. At some point, I hear stuff whipping around the yard and begin hearing the sucking sound of the air being sucked out of the house by the pressure differential. Then, there’s a huge pop and the lights go out.
Electricity is a funny thing. It has really specific sounds and smells. I’ve heard transformers pop before–unfortunate squirrels the cause of at least one transformer explosion. And I’ve smelled that particular tangy, metallic burning of electrical fires. So, in that moment when we heard the pop, I knew something had happened to the electricity and it probably wasn’t good. The worst of the storm seemed over, though it was still terrible, so I went to the back corner of the house to get a sense of what was happening. At some point, my eyes focused well enough to see that our electrical mast was hanging off the house. The fact that it was still attached, but clearly not functional, seemed like a good reason to call 911. Add to the fact that shortly thereafter Sean said he smelled smoke and my nose followed along. So there we weren’t running away from flames, and couldn’t even see visible smoke, but something was clearly very, very wrong.
So I was carrying E, holding onto my laptop (because it is my brain, frankly), and yelling into the phone over the sound of the storm outside and a bad connection. We were all gathered by the front door, raincoats on big boys, D holding the dog, J standing next to his brother, and me still yelling into the phone while Sean got the Subaru. We piled into the Subaru. Sean went back for a few important papers, and started down the block to a friend’s house. Sean couldn’t actually see through his glasses well enough to drive, so I hopped out and went around, though by that time the fire department sirens were close, so he stayed behind.
So the kids, dog, and I all ended up down the blog, soaking wet and safe. They didn’t have power–though a lot of houses did–but it was a familiar house and that made all the difference. We took some time to process, get dry, and recover a bit. While we were doing that, the fire department was inspecting the house using their infrared camera. Notable was that our chain-link fence on the side of the house was electrified when Sean went to show the fire fighters the downed mast. No fires showed up in the attic or in the house, though, so they requested the power be turned off and went off to the next call. Sean came to the neighbors, after rescuing a few photo albums and my jewellery box because who knows, and we all got ready to go to sleep. I walked down to the house one last time, just to check on things. Trees were everywhere and it was clear that a tornado had been though. As I was inspecting the house, the power company confirmed they’d turned off the gas, but that was it.
By about 1a, we were all asleep at the neighbors. Restlessly, but still asleep. But around 2:30a, one of our hosts realized that there were a whole lot of lights by our house and smoke was pouring off the room. So Sean and Alfonso head down the block to see what is up and what turned up was an attic engulfed in flames. Our neighbor, unable to sleep, called it in. So for an hour or so, the firefighters put the house out, Sean hung around in the rain watching, and I sat in the neighbor’s kitchen watching from afar. Our hosts and neighbors helped Sean rescue several important things after this fire. The flag from my dad’s funeral, Sean’s army memorabilia, some art, and more photos. They came home smelling terrible and exhausted. So we all collapsed into bed, hoping it was the end.
Come 6a, I’m getting up to think about how to tell my boys that their house had a major fire, and I see more fire trucks at the house. The boys all wander in and we all sit and look at the lights and trucks. I tell them that we had a fire and that we won’t be able to be at home for awhile, but that the firefighters are important helpers trying to save our house. They handle it with an amazing amount of aplomb and we have breakfast. Turns out this call was for a flareup that the crew charged with watching the house after the fire detected just before leaving.
The following day–Monday–was spent in a blur of Target shopping for clothes and toothbrushes, some clothes for work for Sean and I, and generally trying to hold off the disbelief. Comforting in this moment was cousin Abby, willing to drive me around and shop with me. Comforting, too, was our insurance company who showed up and started handing out money and getting the clean up started. They swept out all the debris–the firefighters dug into the ceiling to spray water into it and put out the fire.
Monday also saw the chainsaw brigade, moving from house to house cutting up branches and cutting down damaged trees. Our two beautiful trees–a sweet acacia and mountain laurel–sustained major damage, and we had to cut down a beautiful evergreen. That makes me most sad as you can’t regrow a tree even though you can regrow a house. But the whole neighborhood, and many of the teachers from the school next door, were out helping clear lawns and make immense brush piles. As has been noted over and over again, the community did come together in the midst of disaster.
The insurance company also sent out an independent inspector who spent most of a day checking out the house. He thinks that it is likely when the electrical mast came loose, but didn’t disconnect, that one of the live wires connected to the frame of the electrical meter, essentially electrifying every neutral/ground wire in the house. This is, as you might imagine, pretty awful for an electrical system, especially one that was 60+ years old. So we actually had many different small fires throughout the house–particularly in the attic–where the current coursing through the grounds connected to lumber or other combustibles. Even some of the outlets and old phone connections have shown evidence of smoldering.
The next few days were spent watching the salvage crew, which bagged anything that could be cleaned and saved. Almost all of the grown up clothes, and some kid clothes, all the glass and ceramic in the kitchen too. Anything plastic needs to go, which means all our Legos and Duplos are lost. The heat and smoke can alter the plastic in such a way that you don’t really know what you’re dealing with anymore, which isn’t the best thing for growing children. What’s amazing is that the salvage people took it all, will clean it all, and will then store it until we have a house to put it back in.
So right now, they’re tearing the drywall out of our living room. We’re essentially getting a gut rehab. The whole roof, trusses and all, is coming off as they burned most extensively. Some walls may need to be replaced. All the original wood flooring is also coming out because it is seeped in water and smoke. The whole house essentially smoked for the better part of 3 hours, so anything porous is lost and needs to be replaced.
We’re doing okay because we’re wrapped in an amazing community, both near and far, that looks out for us and cares for us. Notes and gift cards and prayers and food. It is all welcome and wonderful. My boys are seeing how many people care about and for us, and that’s an incredible lesson to learn. They’re also learning that awful stuff happens, stuff we can’t control, and that you can keep going–even though you feel nervous and sad and anxious. So we talk about it, process the feelings, and work on getting things back to normal. And we’ll keep doing that for the next few months as our house is rebuilt and spring turns into summer.