“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.