Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Neighbor's House Fire

A few weeks ago, there was a house fire in our neighborhood.

I had seen one other house fire before, when I was in kindergarten, and I only have memories of the firefighters putting it out. I didn't see the flames or the family or any of the aftermath...It was in a friend's neighborhood so the exposure I had was very limited.

This time around, I was very close. And as it turns out, very involved.

We just moved into our new rental (where we'll be for the next 6 months) and I was taking a break from unpacking with Penny. We had just settled down onto our couch for Penny to take a nap with me and for a little bit of veg-out time. Our family room sits on the back of the house, overlooking the backyard. The neighborhood is tightly packed, with the fronts of houses right on the street and everyone's driveways and garages on the backs of the houses. After a few minutes, I noticed there was a little bit of smoke puffing up from the other side of our fence. I thought to myself, quite annoyed, that people shouldn't be burning trash in such tight neighborhoods. I turn back to my movie and a minute later that little smoke puff had turned into a slightly darker, meaner plume. Penny had *just* fallen asleep on me and I was really reluctant to get up, the excitement of the move had made nap time difficult for her and I wanted to take advantage of a few minutes of rest for her.

The dark smoke plume quickly turned black, and I realized that this wasn't someone burning trash. I quickly stood up on the couch, to look over the fence, and saw the house across the alleyway begin to open its garage. Inside, the garage was a complete inferno. That garage is directly behind our house, facing our TV room. My husband had met the owner of the house the week before, who shared that he was rebuilding a car in the garage. That was probably the cause.

I ran out back and found a few people milling around in the alley. I asked what had happened, and a woman says

Everyone is ok - the little boy got out.

A little boy?? Oh this hits close to home. I asked if there was anyone else, any pets? Most people don't consider the pets. Had anyone called the police?

No one had called the police.

I am so relieved that the people in my new neighborhood got up out of their couches (while I scoffed and sat in mine) to check what was going on. I am so relieved that someone had helped that little boy escape. But out of the 5-6 people out there in the alley that day, why hadn't anyone called the police yet?

It ended up being me who called it in. My call came in roughly 15 minutes after I had noticed that little smoke puff. In 15 minutes, a family had faced tragedy, danger and the father had lost a lot of work that he had done on his car. Not to mention, how much of this family's belongings were stored in that garage? Hand made Christmas ornaments or important documents? Precious photographs? That little boy's bicycle? 

Within a few minutes five fire engines and two ambulances pulled up. I stood back, watching the firemen pull their hose over and quickly and efficiently put out that fire.

I watched as a terrified mother ran up to the house, with a young boy in her arms, screaming about if her little boy was ok. That she had left her 9 year old son at home for a few minutes while she went to go pick up her other son. What if that was me? Is 9 years old too young to be left home alone for 15 - 20 minutes?

The fire was extinguished and the authorities milled around, at ease, surveying the damage. Then we noticed that there was smoke now coming from the upstairs bedroom. More scrambling, hoses fired up again and firemen running into the house to stop the spread. Less than 10 minutes later, the house was gutted by the fire and a large portion of the roof was missing.

A large group of neighbors began congregating, excited by the sensationalism of a house fire and concerned for their neighbor. Having lived here for less than a week, I admitted that I didn't know the family by name, but no one else could tell me either. It's sad, isn't it? Even in a neighborhood where you could send a spit wad out and it'd hit the neighbor's window, no one seemed to actually know these people.

Within a few days the windows, doors and garage were boarded up. A tarp was stretched to cover the gaping hole in the roof. Uselessly, because within a few days (true to Washington fashion) we had rain and the weight of the water tore the tarp.

Each day I am reminded of how close that fire was to us. Each day I am thankful that it wasn't my house, or that my child had to face such terror. I watch the house each day to see if a family member comes to it (though I know I wouldn't ever want to see that house again).. Hoping to come out and offer a little bit of peace, help in any way I can. But only contractors have been coming and going.

That event made a profound effect on me. I was terrified. Fire biologically rocks us to our core. It can be so devastating. I was afraid for my daughter, our dogs, myself, shamefully - our stuff. In the days afterwards, I laid awake at night going over and over in my head about what to do if there was a fire, at any time of day or night. How I'd grab Penelope, what would the procedure be if Adam was home, if it was night time, where I'd be in the house, how would I get our geriatric dog, Romeo, out safely while Penny is in my arms?  Would I dare grab anything? If I could take something on my way out the door, what would it be? Would it be our laptop, which holds priceless pictures? A blanket to keep Penny warm? It's not something I can easily answer.

One thing for sure is that I am now allowing these fears to take hold of me and render me useless. Adam and I will be formulating a get-out plan. We will have a family emergency kit, in case of an earthquake. And yes, I'll be considering how to safely store what I consider to be my most prized possessions - pictures of our family - in a secure location.

Do you have a family emergency kit? What do you keep in it?


  1. That is always my biggest fear! I find myself double and triple checking stoves and any hot appliances constantly!! Omgosh what would I try and save, what about my pictures, our computer that holds all of our memories together... how awful and so devastating!! I would be so grateful to just get my family out safe but so sad to lose my belongings that hold memories!! Im so glad your neighbors are ok!!

  2. That is so scary and I'm so glad everyone was okay!



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