Fire

Shared by Amelia Bennett

So many people have experienced the devastating effects of natural and manmade disaster this year—from fires to floods to unimaginable storms, the losses have been incredible. And yet, though many have suffered greatly in the same regions, losing your home and belongings can be incredibly isolating. Especially if money is tight. Especially if you’re unprepared.

By the Numbers

By the time our house burned down, my husband and I had been married almost six and a half years. We’d moved eight times already—and three of those moves had occurred during that same calendar year. We’d held a total of seven jobs (he’d had 3, I’d had 4). Our daughter, our only living child, was three and a half. We were 996 miles away from the place we called “home”—the address we had to list on the Army paperwork as being where we came from, our home of record—and we were living pretty darn close to the dead center of Texas. It was December 3rd, 2006.

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The Call

We were less than thirty miles away from our current home, the duplex we were renting in Texas, when we got the call. It was close to midnight, and we’d already driven nearly a thousand miles from Phoenix back to Ft. Hood with the kiddo, a dog, and a cat in the car. Our cash supply was low, as it always is for a low-ranking soldier with a family, but after a really tough year we had been eager to see our families. We’d decided to take some leave to drive to Arizona to visit and celebrate a mish-mashed Thanksgiving and Christmas. We’d stayed as long as we could, given and loved as generously as possible, and were heading home on a shoestring. I think we had about a hundred bucks to last us almost two more weeks until midmonth pay would hit. We were more than ready to shuffle through the door and flop into our respective beds. 

I was driving, so my husband answered the phone. “Hello?” I could hear the landlady’s voice crackling through the midnight silence in the car. “I didn’t see you there. I just wanted to make sure you all got out okay—you have someplace to stay?” I looked over in confusion, brow furrowed as I tried to figure out what she was talking about. My husband was just as baffled. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean. We’ve been out of town for a few days, but we’re almost back home. Is everything okay?” It wasn’t. She explained that there had been a fire, a bad one. The fire department had finally gotten control of the blaze and put it out, but they were condemning the building. It would be a total loss—not livable. She again expressed relief that we were safe, and said we would figure things out later. 

Now what?

I don’t remember everything that happened after that, but I know I kept driving. With 25 miles to go out of a thousand, what else were we to do? We had no friends nearby, had not been able to get plugged into a church, and my husband’s unit was re-forming under a new chain of command. I think I called my mother first, but I can’t remember much. When we arrived at the house, we called the fire department. I think we just didn’t know what else to do. A crew returned to the scene to explain a little bit about what happened, show us where they’d tried to kick the door down, and warn us away from the picture window in our master bedroom. The firemen had destroyed the window in order to enter our home to make sure no one was trapped inside. Someone—I can’t remember if it was my mother or a fireman—recommended we call the Red Cross. 

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A coordinator helped us get a room for three days at a low-rent hotel in a neighboring town, but no one could take our animals. Not the Humane Society, not Animal Control. We were forced to leave our pets in the burnt-out, soggy ,and smoke-damaged shell of our home, hoping they would come to no harm. A volunteer, I think from the Salvation Army, met us at the hotel with some emergency funds for food, and we finally fell asleep. My husband went to work a couple of hours later.

In situations like this, it’s common for the hat to get passed around by command, and the Army has many resources in place for soldiers who face extreme hardship. Somehow, thanks to the very recent relocation and reformation of my husband’s entire regiment, we fell through all the cracks. Despite living in a small town and suffering the loss of our home just weeks before Christmas, there was no assistance from the community at all. When I look back on those days I am overwhelmed by how incredibly alone I felt.

Alone, but Not Forgotten

Somehow, our landlady convinced some of her other tenants to move out of their unit earlier than they’d planned. I don’t think I could easily remember my own name in that chaotic time, so I certainly wouldn’t remember the names of the people that left their home to provide one to my family, but I am so thankful for that incredible inconvenience they willingly undertook so we could get settled again. We didn’t have the money for even a single night at a hotel, but our rent for December had already been paid, and that credit was applied to the new address. We spent days picking through the soggy, smoke-stained remains of the home for our possessions, and walking them across the street to our new home. 

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In those first days, it took every last mental and emotional resource at our disposal to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and to be honest there is so much I don’t remember. We didn’t have renter’s insurance, we didn’t have adequate savings, and we didn’t even have a second car. My husband went to work in the morning, and I took trips when I could, carrying clothing, food, and other belongings from the destroyed building to our new address across the street. In the long run, we were so very fortunate not to have lost more than we did, but there at the beginning things seemed very desolate.

My brother and his wife provided a generous gift to help us replace damaged furniture. A bible study group that included an aunt pooled funds to buy us a gift card that allowed us to replace our pillows. We found inexpensive yet comfortable chairs to replace a damaged love seat. The only mattress that could not be salvaged was the top bunk of our daughter’s bed, where nobody slept. We successfully laundered the smoke smell out of all but a few pieces of clothing. 

Every truly critical belonging had been in the car with us while our house was on fire, and although we had no community, our families drew close to us in that time.

Not Always so Lucky

Your story may be so very, very different. The other half of our duplex, where the fire originated, was completely decimated. More than once, we stepped through the blackened carcass of what had once been part of the building we inhabited, and explained to our young child all about the dangers of playing with fire. I will never forget my first glimpse of the sky through their living room ceiling, or the way the drapes of melted plastic that had been their Christmas Tree felt between my fingertips. The smell of a residential fire is so particular and complex, and yet somehow also so uniform, that I can catch a whiff of it from miles away. Studies show you can’t process odors in your sleep, but last year, a decade after our fire, I woke in a midnight panic to the familiar scent of a home on fire. I dressed and rushed into the street, searching the nearest houses for tongues of flame until I heard the fire trucks descend and get to work. 

I know that many will never experience the dramatic loss of their home. I also know that many others have lost everything, including loved ones. Of the struggles I have experienced, this trench remains one of the most confusing, and although it wasn’t really that long ago, there are so many details I just cannot force myself to remember. 

I’m thankful that we arrived after the fire. 

I’m thankful I wasn’t forced to flee my home in a panic.

I am grateful beyond measure that my child was spared the trauma of watching her home burn.

 

 
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Things to do if a neighbor or friend loses their home:

See them. Sit with them. Offer a safe place for them to come undone, even if briefly. Don’t try to find magic words—“This is rotten, I am so sorry” is the perfect sort of thing to say.

If you have extra resources, share them. Even if the person experiencing the loss is insured, payments and reimbursements take a lot of time, and this kind of tragedy often results in lots of missed work. Cash quickly becomes precious, and gift cards are like the promise of a new day.

If you don’t have money, that’s okay! Share a meal, a roll of paper towels, a trip to the post office. Offer childcare, or your companionship when it’s time to replace clothing and furniture. Small decisions like choosing new measuring cups or a coffee maker can feel overwhelming, and it helps to have someone to bounce opinions off of.

Don’t forget them in a month. Like other losses, a tragedy like losing a home can have long-lasting, complicated emotional and logistical consequences. Helping hands often disappear quickly, but real friendship is proven in the long term. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know how to help, but here I am.”

 


Resources

American Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org

Salvation Army: http://www.salvationarmy.org