I heard the alarm, saw the fire, and yelled at my mom to get out. She woke up. Put her bathrobe and slippers on. Grabbed the dog. We kept calling to each other. She walked out her door. I couldn’t get to her door in time, but crawled through the house and out another door. You know the story.
I simply heard the alarm.
We met at the front of the house, so relieved to be out.
I don’t feel like a heroine, or brave, or level-headed. I feel like I acted on instinct. But if I hadn’t been there… oh, it’s terrifying to contemplate. (See the end of this post for a link to a super-loud, bed-shaking smoke alarm)
House Fire Statistics
Before I go on with my update, I’d like to share some information from some research on house fires.
According to the latest data (2018) from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA, a global organization) 27% of all fires occur in homes. Four of every five (79%) fire deaths and three-quarters (73%) of all reported injuries were caused by home fires. (See National Fire Protection Association 2018 report).
According to FEMA’s National Fire Data Center, “Cooking, at 52%, was the leading cause of residential building fires. Heating caused another 9%. These percentages (and those that follow) are adjusted, which proportionally spreads the unknown causes over the other 15 cause categories.”
In the NFPA Fire Loss in the United Status During 2018 report, US public fire departments responded to 363,000 home fires, with a US fire department responding to a fire every 24 seconds on average. In 2018, 2,720 (74 percent of all fire deaths), occurred in the home. They have recommendations for prevention:
There are five major strategies for reducing the death toll in home fires. First, more widespread public fire safety education is needed on how to prevent fires and how to avoid serious injury or death if a fire occurs. Information on the common causes of fatal home fires should be used in the design of fire safety education messages. Second, people need to install and maintain smoke alarms and develop and practice escape plans. Third, wider use of residential sprinklers must be aggressively pursued. Fourth, additional ways must be sought to make home products safer from fire. The regulations requiring more child-resistant lighters are a good example. Finally, the special fire safety needs of high-risk groups, such as children, older adults, the poor, and people with disabilities, need to be addressed.NFPA Fire Loss in the United Status During 2018
Though the cause of our fire has not yet been officially determined, Dad said the forensic firefighter pointed to the spot where I saw the flames and said “that’s where it started.” So we’re thinking, electrical.
At Jeremy and Lisa’s house we showered and we did laundry. There were three items in the washer: my dad’s sweatpants, my tank top, and mom’s bathrobe. Lisa had thrown them in while we showered, copiously.
We stood at the door to the laundry room waiting for the washer to switch off, still shaken and tallying the losses.
“My passport. My driver’s license.” I said. “And more than 500 dollars… and I had pesos, too. I don’t know how much.”
The wash cycle ended and Lisa bent to open the door.
“I have no idea what was in my purse,” Mom said. “I think it was a lot.”
“Well, they smell clean,” said Lisa. We’d been worried the smoke smell would linger or worse, contaminate the washer. Lisa, her head still in the washer, handed handed back a roll of cash.
“Is this yours?” she asked. “I know it isn’t mine.”
Mom grabbed the roll. It was secured with a paper clip.
“Oh! Oh!” she said. “It must have been in my bathrobe pocket.”
We laughed. “Who keeps cash in their bathrobe pocket?” said Lisa.
Mom shrugged. “I don’t know. Just for emergencies, I guess.”
“Here’s another one.”
It was exactly like the first, a roll of five twenties secured with a large paper clip.
“And another one! Gosh, Mom, how much cash do you need when you’re in your bathrobe!?”
We laughed harder when she found another roll, and then another. She kept handing them out with a final count of $800 in twenties.
My parents are what’s called “The Silent Generation,” the children of The Great Depression. They were taught to be frugal and grew up practicing nuclear bomb drills at school, hiding under their desks. They migrated from the cities to the suburbs. They were silenced in the McCarthy era and worked within the system obeying all the rules. They married young and had children, with Doctor Spock as their guide. They like to be prepared for emergencies. So I guess they keep cash tucked here and there. Just in case.
The day after the fire, my dad and my brothers collected the clothes and things from the closets and bureaus in the rooms at end of the house that didn’t burn completely. It got very hot in there even before the roof fell. In the guest room something exploded and spattered glittery goo all over the place.
This was the least important side of the house in terms of contents. Mostly clothing. We soaked them in tubs of vinegar and baking soda which got most of the smell out of some of them.
It didn’t work as well as we’d hoped, but with a more thorough internet search we learned that natural fabrics can be cleaned but not the synthetics. So we separated them into piles, put them into a cooler, and drove them to Pavel Cleaners nearby. The owner accepted the smelly mess with grace after another customer, who had been chatting with her, wrinkled her nose and fled.
A few days later the clothes came back like new and Mom said, “Maybe we should have given them everything.” But I had sorted through everything and thrown out the ones with scorches and burn holes.
In our family, shopping for clothes is our least favorite activity. I have replaced most of mine at online shopping sites, and I keep remembering things.
My suitcase had protected some of my things, like my laptop with its scorched screen and a piece of window-glass melted to the case. My podcast recorder, an expensive Zoom H4n, survived and my interviews from the San Francisco Writers Conference are intact.
My purse melted to form a protective case around my wallet with my passport, driver’s license, bank cards, and cash, along with my cosmetics bag with lipstick and eyebrow pencil and concealer, all of them intact but smoky.
The next day, my brothers and Dad donned masks and boots to sort through the rubble. They found the oddest thing; a pristine plastic bottle of margeurita mix in the liquor cabinet among the various exploded and melted beverage containers.
A row of books on a lower shelf didn’t burn. And a photo of my great grandfather, who was Editor of the Boston Herald at the turn of the 19th century, survived, just a little crispy around the edges.
The shower in my dad’s bathroom looked like this.
My brothers were in ninth grade when they moved to Morgan Hill. Other than the loss of the house they are particularly broken up about the photo albums, as they’ve been meaning to digitize them for ages. I’ve never seen them so depressed so I was glad to see Jeff on Find My Friends on his mountain bike the morning after.
Which reminded me to do something good for myself too, like go on a hike, but I couldn’t put shoes on because of my broken little toe. But later my niece Dana came over with a pair of her old Birkenstocks and we took a slow walk in Almaden Quicksilver County Park nearby. It was great to get out in the sunshine with the old oaks, the wildflowers and the bay trees in bloom.
I’m feeling better. Sharing these posts has been really good for me. Writing helps me process, organize my thoughts. I think it slows down my thought process. I’m not good at snap decisions and need to remember to ask people to give me a little time to process before any big decision.
I haven’t had the fire nightmares in a few nights in a row. Maybe it helped that my mom told me the living room sat on a concrete slab so there couldn’t have been a fire raging under the house. But wow, that means the armchair-sized fire I saw moved so fast. So much faster than I could have ever imagined.
And I’m really glad I could share my experience with you so that you stay safe, so you can get louder alarms if you need them and practice exit routes. Hundreds of you have written to tell me you have done just that.
There is so much left to do. Mom and Dad have found a house near my brothers which will be furnished in “modern neutral” and equipped with all the necessities. For now, they will only need their (mostly new) clothes and groceries as they replace the rental things with things they love.
They have drawn out the burned-down house and are making plans to rebuild. They are inventorying its contents. They are purchasing clothes and laptops and toiletries and earbuds and laundry soap and replacing meds and all the little things. For now, they are surrounded by nothing but love.
Check out this bedside alarm that hears your
smoke detectors and shakes your bed.
Lifetone Bedside Alarm Shaker
Building with Insulated Composite Concrete Forms (ICCF)