Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 26, 2013

Teaching what I need to learn

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on February 26, 2013

“What’s that hissing noise?”

It was 4:00 Tuesday morning. I was asleep. I thought my wife was asleep.

“Huh?” I asked, intelligently.

“That noise,” she said, sitting up in bed.

I did hear something. I got out of bed and looked out the window.

I heard hissing sounds. And popping sounds. Lots of them.

And I saw a red glow where there shouldn’t have been one.

A frighteningly ugly and much too close red glow.

“The shop’s on fire,” I said, using the name I gave to my study — a building about 300 feet from our house.

“Is it bad,” my wife asked.

“Yes. Get the kids out of the house.”

“Should I call 911?”



Here’s what the outside of the shop looked like when we moved into our house a few years ago.

Here’s what it looked like from my bedroom window, at 4:16 on Tuesday morning.

My family practiced fire drills a few times a year. My kids took the drills seriously. So everyone was out of the house quickly, maybe under a minute. My wife and son moved the cars away from the house in case the fire spread.

It did not.

Even though our evacuation wasn’t perfect, I would like to believe the drills helped. At least at the margins.

As the preparedness experts suggest, our cars each have 72 hour emergency kits for the four of us, so that was a good thing. We also have a two week supply of food, water, blankets, and other recommended preparedness items.

I should say we “had,” rather than “have.” I kept our main preparedness kit in the shop.

Seemed like a good idea at the time.

It also seemed like a good idea to use the shop as a study and library. The shop held something near 5,000 books that I’d started collecting when I was 18 (including the first two books I started with: Webster’s Collegiate and Roget’s Thesaurus). It had papers, notes, writings, and other relics of an academic life.

We used half the 1000 square-foot shop to store out-of-season clothes, tools, bikes, lawn mower, chainsaw, holiday decorations, camping equipment, pictures of the kids growing up, and the other miscellaneous items families keep, expecting to pass along to another generation.


I live in rural Oregon, so it seemed like 2 hours before the fire department showed up. Turns out it took them less than 5 minutes to get to my house.

Apparently internal clocks are not to be trusted during chaos.

The 7 or 8 responding fire fighters were calm, methodical, and professional. Even though it was a minor incident (to everyone but me, of course), they used incident command. The commander assigned one team to the north side of the building and the other team to the south side. Not knowing what was in the building, they brought masks, and canisters and lord knows what else with them. They were a credit to their profession. But it was their calmness that I best remember. It was infectious.

Most of the fire was out in an hour. One team remained for 90 minutes to extinguish returning flames.

The fire smoldered for several more days, even in the Oregon rain.

Books and family artifacts do not die quickly.


It’s been a week since the fire. A bizarre week.

My wife now defines herself officially as “an empty husk of a woman.” I helpfully remind her that at least she has that going for her.

My 12 year old is happy the internet has returned to our house. But he does hug me every now and then and says he’s sorry I lost everything. I hug him back and remind him he’s mistaken.

My 16 year old son surprised me during the hight of the chaos. He remained composed during the whole incident. He made sure his mother and brother had warm coats when they evacuated into the cold darkness. He wrote down — legibly — our names and contact information for the fire chief. He did a lot of small things that brought comfort and confidence to his mother and brother. I had not seen that part of him before — perhaps a glimpse of the man that he is becoming.

As for me, I look at what’s left of the shop and stagger between “Wow!” and “WTF??”

My professional network consists mostly of public safety and military men and women. I do not have words to describe how supportive they’ve been, offering to do anything I need, realistically knowing at this point the sentiment is enough.

These friends also are a stabilizing influence for me. I have been surprised by that. Yes, it was personally tragic, but it could have been a hell of a lot worse.

And for many of the people my public safety friends have known, it was worse.

Their emailed condolences indirectly remind me what they’ve experienced: New York City and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Katrina, Haiti, San Bruno, Aurora, Sandy, Iraq, Afghanistan — to say nothing about the day-to-day tragedies that shape the routines of their professional lives.

The subtext of almost all the compassionate messages I received from them during the week was something like, “Sorry it was your turn. Take a little time to regroup. Then get back in the arena.”

Gently, one colleague reminded me he had to leave everything he owned — “except for a couple of suitcases” — when he was forced to leave his homeland.

Another wrote that he knew what I was going through because he’s still trying to recover from what Hurricane Sandy did to his home

Another friend was more direct:

Sorry Hallmark does not appear to make a “So your placed burned down” greeting card.

Maybe my favorite was this message:

No books. Wow. You’re about to try living life like an 18 year old.”


Yesterday I came across some words John Borling wrote (Borling spent six and a half years in Hanoi as a prisoner of war):

My view is that our job [like Sisyphus] is to get the rock up and over the hill…. And once you do, the rock rolls down the other side, and what do you see? You see another hill. The essence of life is really just pushing rocks.”

And, I might add, that’s not entirely a bad thing.


Note: This post started out to be something about personal and family preparedness. But it got side tracked along the way.

I was going to write about where my preparedness plans succeeded (a few places), where they failed (far too many places) and what I’ve learned in the past week (far too much I should have known and acted on before the fire).

But I’ll write about that another time. I’m still preparing my after action report, and you know how long those things can take.

For now,  I’ll pour myself a glass of wine, get back to being resilient, and contemplate one more picture from a fire of still undetermined origin.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn


Comment by TwShiloh

February 26, 2013 @ 6:48 am

Sorry to hear about your loss. I’ve been a fan of your writing for some time now and wish you and your family the best.

And when you’ve got a bit more distance from the event and can look at it in a lighter mood, may I recommend this be the first song you play in your (hopefully soon) restored study? http://youtu.be/Q-Z7qcrkbuQ

Comment by Ted

February 26, 2013 @ 9:44 am

Next time you are in town come raid my bookshelf and take what you want. I know some of our books overlap. For example, I have extra copies of Taleb’s books and you might now have time to finish Too Big To Fail by Sorkin!

Hissing and popping sounds like an electrical fire.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

February 26, 2013 @ 10:49 am

I have about two dozen books available In the Disaster Bookstore(http://www.disasterbookstore.com)

Chris, feel free to order anything that you would like to have to replace your collection. No charge.

I would feel naked without my library!


Comment by William R. Cumming

February 26, 2013 @ 11:07 am

WOW! The second destruction of the Alexandria Egypt library.
Let me know what books you absolutely need and cannot find and will provide them to you over time.

By the way what started the fire?

And glad your family safe!

Maybe a Timberframe shed/study/studio this time?

Comment by Michael Brady

February 26, 2013 @ 11:36 am


I’m glad everyone is okay and I’m sorry for your loss.

“The shop held something near 5,000 books that I’d started collecting when I was 18”

That is a shame, but those books made you the person you are and you are still here.

Comment by Donald Quixote

February 26, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

I am sorry for your great physical and historical losses. I am grateful that you did not experience any irreplaceable human loss. Unfortunately, you are going to be catapulted into the truly modern world with the digital resurrection of your library and archives, as possible. Those beautifully worn books and publications shall become numerous terabytes and more searchable for your continued research and work – a positive and negative development.

For a man who thrives in chaos, this may be a little extreme even for you. Good luck and please furnish a mailing address for some replacement books. My better-half has been threatening to put a match to my library for years if it continues to grow. I look forward to seeing the new and improved Bellavita Renegade Library and Center.

Comment by Capt. Stacy Gerlich

February 26, 2013 @ 5:55 pm

Until I met you, I had no real library. I can’t begin to imagine the sense of your loss. What I can say is that a brilliant mind such as yours, will find a way to once again restore your vault of knowledge and work. They (whoever they are) always say things happen for a reason. You might argue that books are replaceable, but you are not! So if something needed to be sacraficed to satisfy the beast (fire) better it was the literature on those shelves and not the brilliant man, Christopher Bellavita and his family!
I would send you a gift card to amazon.com but hardly believe it could fill the void.
With warmest regards!

Comment by James Madia

February 26, 2013 @ 11:34 pm


I’m so sorry to hear about the fire and the loss of such intrinsically valuable and in some cases irreplaceable treasures. It was a relief to know you and your family were safe (the real treasures). You have done so much for so many people, so I can hear the thoughts of all the people (me included) who are plotting to replace what can be replaced. I built what I refer to as my research library (such that it is) on so many of your suggestions. I’ll help in any way possible, but right now I just wanted you to know I was thinking about you.

Comment by Christopher Tingus

February 26, 2013 @ 11:57 pm


God Bless you and your family that all are safe!

…and this unfortunate incident emphasizes that we should be prepared at any time for the unexpected! From what you write, you and your Wife should have much pride in your children and your well executed evacuation plans and even the auto survival kit. As a senior today, w/resepct to papers and books and other such what seemed very important to me in my 30’s, 40’s and even 50’s, becomes less important as time moves on and while you have suffered a loss, family safe and fortunately the fire did not spread and cause even far much more loss….

Hope you rebuild soon and after reading about the fire, I think i will add a smoke detector out in my shed!

Sorry to hear of your loss!

Comment by Norma Jean Suiter

February 27, 2013 @ 4:36 pm

Chris: Heather alerted me to your posting about the fire.I am so sorry to learn of your loss but am glad to know you and the family were not injured (physically). Perhaps you noticed this, but what I saw rising from the smouldering ruins in the last picture was a cross! Your faith, strength and the love your family shares will make this an incident you will recall over the years but remembering your many blessings. Lacy would be pleased to learn how your preparedness was realized.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

February 27, 2013 @ 5:28 pm

Other mitigation questions:

Did you have a smoke detector in your study? And does household insurance cover another building on the property?

Comment by Tish Argenti

February 28, 2013 @ 12:54 am

Chris, I, too, learned of this posting by Heather. You wrote of your blessings & the poignant moments that you observed with your family reacting to a crisis. How would you have come to know these things without a painful moment? Thank God that you were safe & each of your family members continue to see the silver linings. The Sufi poet says that there are a thousand ways to kiss the ground, this humbling experience brought you direct awareness of many important blessings. it also brings the rest of us an indirect awareness to not only be prepared but to count our daily blessings. The lost pictures will be the hardest, I expect, to replace but you could have been grieving over much, much more! Continued good fortune to you, as in the end, it was a good day for you & your family! May you be at peace with all of this & thanks for sharing. Until our paths meet again, CAPT Tish Argenti, USCG, (former short-time student, many years past…)

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>