In light of the big This Is Us fire, I thought I would take this time to share my experience of being in a house fire. My home burned down on Halloween weekend in 1980. It was a three-alarm fire meaning three fire stations were dispatched to the blaze. “Big fire on arrival,” best describes the scene. Huge plumes of toxic gray smoke billowed out and up the back of the house as flames licked (my best description of flame action from my memory) out the windows and up the eaves toward the roof.
In some ways, it was the classic fire nightmare story, perfect for a movie script. My parents were out of town for the weekend. My younger brother was luckily at a sleepover with friends. I was out with friends at a roller skating rink until after midnight. I know. Mom always said, “Nothing good happens after midnight.” My older sister was home having a party with friends – you see where this is going?
I returned home to a post party house…you can picture it. Keg in the back yard and the hush hush of my sister. That night, for the first time in a month, I slept in my own room. I had been sleeping on a sofa due to nightmares I had from watching the movie Friday the 13th. The first one. That I watched at the theater on my birthday, August 30. Anyway, that is another story. But, for the first time in weeks, I slept in my own room. And, on top of that, I shut the door thinking that if there was a fire or something I should close the door. Strange coincidence or fate? You decide.
I don’t know about you, but as a youth I had those common questions like what would I take with me if my house burned down. What would I save? What would I do? My room had been redecorated from the blue Holly Hobby motif that my mother had chosen years before and repainted a dark sienna brown color…earthy tones were so in back then. And, I wasn’t very girly girly then anyway! I mean, WHO has ever heard of Holly Hobby!? I know I didn’t know who Holly Hobby was. At the time, my new Pentax K1000 camera was my favorite possession. I was the yearbook editor and shot football pictures when I wasn’t playing in the band.
Fast forward to the night of the fire. I jerked awake as if pushed up by some unseen force (ask me about my thoughts on that another time). My dark sienna brown walls were cloudy. The whole room was cloudy. All I could see was haze. I couldn’t hear anything. I got out of bed and went for the door. I remembered those “what to do in case of a fire” videos from elementary school; “Touch the door. Don’t touch the door handle (hot!). Get low beneath the smoke.” I went to the door. Yes, it was hot. I recall thinking that this was stupid and pointless. The house was obviously on fire. Get out was the answer.
My camera was on my desk. My favorite green corduroy pants were on the floor. (Eighties, remember? Before fluorescent was in!) What do you think I grabbed? What did I do? I am here to tell you that the answer to the ‘what you will rescue during a fire’ question is – NOTHING. Nothing matters. You won’t take anything. I did, however, put my pants on. Score one for vanity.
With pants on, I moved to the front window. I opened the window and was struggling with the screen. I decided to try the side window. I took three to four steps toward the other window and started coughing and choking. I couldn’t breath. I was going to die if I stayed inside any longer. I ran back to the other window and pushed through the screen and landed outside in a spiky juniper shrub. Not a comfortable landing. My parents always planted spiky shrubs around the house to stave off burglars. I don’t think it works, but I know it makes for a bad escape.
The house was dark and quiet except for the loud roar of flames. Fires seem silent when you are inside…you are lulled into the roar until you don’t hear it. Knowing my sister was inside, I ran to the front door. I beat on the door and hit the large glass side panel which split beneath my forearm. I started running to my neighbors to call the fire department and saw my sister crash through the juniper bushes.
I returned to the house but couldn’t find my sister. I went into the back yard and saw the entire family room engulfed in flames. Though the patio door, I could see a large flame like a sinister tongue licking up the ceiling and into the kitchen. The fire was spreading out the family room window to the eaves. Foolishly or maybe that I felt helpless, I grabbed a hose and started spraying the roof and eave. I heard an oil lamp explode in the house. Intense heat pushed me twenty feet back. I felt like I had an instant sunburn. I turned from the flames and a girl I did not know jump out my parent’s bathroom window and run. I wondered if anyone else could be in the house.
Sirens sounded and firemen surrounded me. I backed off, trying to breath, my throat felt burned and a rough dripping sensation was in my chest. Hoses were strewn all over the ground as firemen worked the stream on the fire. I watched firemen dump the keg out and use the barrel to pour water through the threshold so others could approach.
The aftermath is as great as the fire although I must admit I don’t remember the fire being out or the firemen leaving. I slept at my neighbors house that night grateful of a place to stay and surprised that so many of my neighbors, who I didn’t know well, had offered to take us in.
The next day, my older brother and sister came home with my younger brother. We were lucky. No one was hurt. Even the cats and dogs escaped. But the house was seriously damaged. From the street, you couldn’t tell the house had burned. As it was a brick house, I can’t say it burned down. More like it was burned out. We walked the house and comedy relief took over. “Remember that spot on the carpet by the fireplace? Well you don’t have to worry about it anymore!” We joked in our shock and dismay. A neighbor came over and chastised us for burning the house down. NOT what we needed to hear. PSA: Take my advice. That is not a good thing to say to someone whose house has just burned down.
Everything that was not scorched or melted was smoke damaged. Anything manufactured with any plastic was melted into shapes making a guessing game of what it had been. The telephone had melted down the wall. It still worked, but it was like a Salvatore Dali painting. A wall of book cases was charred. Curtain rods drooped and clothes singed off wire hangers were clumped on closet floors. Hollow core doors were burned through revealing the cardboard spacers inside. The wool carpet was singed flat and half burned furniture was thrown throughout the back yard by the firemen. And the smell. There is nothing like the smell of a fire. My memory of that smell will never go away.
Fires can be a dramatic plot twist for a movie, but in real life they have deadly consequences and life long effects. The house took over 6 months to rebuild. The burned lungs would take a few weeks to heal. Though some effects were longer lasting. For years, I would wake in the middle of the night and get up to touch the walls. Beige walls were the worse as they reminded me of the smoky haze. I would touch the walls to make sure they were cool. And I am super conscious of anything that heats up. Although the cause of the fire was a cigarette that fell out of an ashtray onto a sofa, I love automatic shut offs! Electrical items, especially when they are malfunctioning, terrify me. But I know how blessed we were to survive this fire. Watching fire movies have a visceral affect on me that I don’t wish on anyone.
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