The story below is an excerpt from our September/October 2016 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, log in to read our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app. Thank you!
The smoke detectors started screaming at 2:20 a.m. Usually when my smoke detectors go off, it means that dinner is ready.
Not this time. My husband and I stumble through the house trying to figure out why the smoke detectors are blaring. I know we’re groggy but we didn’t smell or see anything wrong.
First Lesson: Trust your smoke detectors. Eventually, I noticed that the living room baseboard puffed wisps of smoke. It was just a delicate sigh of smoke, hardly noticeable and in my sleepy haze I just stood there, wondering why baseboards would take up smoking. Turned out the outer wall was far more committed to fire and smoke and we were in some serious trouble.
Second Lesson: Bad things happen when you are least prepared to cope. There you are, all cozy in a Nyquil-induced dream, severely underdressed, and thrown into a life-or-death situation where your reaction time is critical. Does trauma ever happen after your first cup of coffee, when you’re all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed? No, it does not. Trauma waits to visit in the middle of the night.
That’s when being married to a sensible adult helped me out. Third Lesson: Marry wisely. It matters in general, and it is absolutely critical in an emergency. My husband said, “Look at me. I’ve called the fire department and when they get here they will not let you back in the house. Get dressed now!”
That sliced through my fog. I ran upstairs and threw on whatever was on the floor of the closet and woke up all the dogs. Three dogs obeyed my commands and ran downstairs into the back yard. The fourth, a simpleton of a bulldog, refused to even wake up. I had to drag all 72 pounds of him down the stairs and throw him out the door. Fourth Lesson: If you own a dog of very little brain like my bulldog Doughnut, put a harness on him instead of a collar. Then you can grab him like a lumpy suitcase and carry him out of a burning building when necessary.
Before the fire, if you’d asked me what I would grab if I had to run out in the middle of the night, I’d have given some naive, sentimental response. Surely I’d grab wedding rings, photo albums, my book manuscript, baby booties, etc., etc. During a fire, none of those things mattered. I grabbed my dogs, my purse and cell phone, my medication, and my emergency notebook. Even then, everything on that list past the word “dogs” could be replaced. Fifth Lesson: If you are dependent on medications, do not have them spread all over the house. Keep them all together on a tray you can pick up and dump into a bag, or stored in a travel bag or box that you can just grab and go.
Sixth Lesson: I am grateful to have learned this one prior to the fire. Have an Emergency Notebook. What’s that? I have a binder that has all our essential information in it. It has birth certificates, copies of all insurance policies, car titles, copies of current prescriptions, copies of our driver’s licenses, a phone list of everyone we might need to call including our insurance agents, wills and medical directives, rabies certificates for all the dogs, credit card information, thumb drives with irreplaceable photos and documents, bank accounts, and resumes.
I keep this notebook handy. Mine is boringly titled, “Emergency.” My friend decided that was too obvious and if burglars broke in, they could grab it and wreck your life. Hers is entitled, “God’s Plan For You.” She thought it unlikely a burglar would have a religious epiphany while robbing her house and grab something with that title.
The dogs and I huddled in my little Subaru wagon while five different fire companies worked. It was 19 degrees outside and I’m watching a dark hole opening in my house, the edges glowing and spreading. I have never felt more helpless. Patrick was out answering questions for the fire fighters, so he was more involved and in control. Me, I was frazzled to the gills and couldn’t do a thing about it. Seventh Lesson: Keep a bottle of water in your car. In times of stress, your mouth and throat will become drier than you’d think possible. You’re going to want water. I also had a small throw blanket. It helped keep me warm but more importantly, it was comforting. I may just put a teddy bear in the car for any future catastrophes.
Eighth Lesson: Make sure your smoke detectors are working. Our smoke detectors are the only reason we still have a house, the only reason carbon monoxide didn’t kill us in our sleep. If your smoke detectors are battery-dependent, mark your calendar to put fresh batteries in them every Labor Day. That’s right before the big fireplace/wood stove heating season starts.
Ninth Lesson: Make sure your chimneys are clean and well maintained. Check them yearly. The fire inspector’s best guess to the cause of our fire is that the chimney from the wood stove had developed a crack and through that, sparks got to the space between the drywall and the exterior wall.
If you have to have a house fire, we had one of the least disruptive possible. Sure we had a 15 x 8-foot hole in our house while it was 20 degrees outside, and everything smelled of smoke and not the good barbecue kind either. The firemen did as little damage as possible and still made sure the house was safe for us. We were back inside by 6 a.m. Nobody got hurt. Which brings me to my conclusion.
Tenth Lesson: Be grateful for what you have everyday. It can always get worse, and it can all be gone in a flash. Just be grateful.
(Our heartfelt thanks to the fire companies of Orkney Springs, New Market, Conicville, Mount Jackson, and Woodstock, Virginia. You are amazing.)