Saturday, September 23, 2023

Things we lost in the fire

I've been reluctant to blog this because it really was a traumatic experience that I've had no desire to relive, but this blog often serves as an online journal, so it really should be marked. Also, I think I have some valuable advice to offer at the end.

On Thursday, September 14, we had a fire at my apartment complex. It's a huge complex made up of many buildings. At around 3pm I was sitting at my desk watching something online (I think it was a YouTube video critiquing the ongoing WGA/SAG-AFTRA strikes) when I heard a woman screaming outside my building at the top of her lungs. I couldn't make out what she was saying, but I got the impression that a couple was about to have a major fight out in the parking/common area, and I had a quick thought about how tacky that was. If only. I turned the volume down and heard her and a couple other people outside bellowing "FIRE!" and "GET OUT!" Before I could even process that, someone came running down my hallway pounding on doors and yelling the same thing: 'FIRE!!! GET OUT!!!

I hadn't planned on going out that day, so I hadn't even dressed. I was wearing a crappy t-shirt and pajama shorts. I hadn't taken a shower or put makeup on. I opened the door and couldn't see any smoke or flame, so I ran into my bedroom to change quickly. If I was only going to be left with the clothes on my back, I needed something substantial. Jeans, blouse, flip-flops. Then I had to see if I could get to Sophie; luckily she hadn't reacted to the fuss and was just curled up on her favorite chair. I grabbed her by the scruff of her neck and apparently I hit the exact right spot - she never moved. I ran back to where I store the cat carrier, pulled it out, and stuffed her into it.
The whole time this was going on I was shaking like crazy and trying to process that this was happening: my building was on fire. I might lose everything. I managed to grab my phone, my purse, and my keys. I didn't even stop to grab the laptop. Then I bolted out. 
Once outside the building, I called The Brother and told his voice mail, "My building's on fire. Call me." Then I headed further into the complex, away from the fire. Here's what I could see at this point: No flames anywhere, but a huge, dark column of smoke belching up from an area that appeared to be the far end of my building (it's a rectangular shaped building, three stories with ten units on each floor, and I'm in an end unit furthest away from the street) although off to the side. I started to wonder if they could stop it before it got to my place, and if so would I be allowed to go inside and get some of my stuff - more clothes, my laptop, and other things I'd forgotten to grab. I had my phone but not the charger. I thought my credit cards were in my purse (I keep them in a separate RFID case, not in my wallet) but I'd signed up for a webinar earlier that day and I hadn't put them back in my purse. They were sitting on my desk. I also couldn't get to my car, since our parking garage is under the building. 

Eventually a boatload of fire trucks showed up. When I looked down the driveway I could see a ladder going up to the roof where my building connects via bridge to the building in front of us, the one that fronts the street. I couldn't tell if they were working on my building or the other one. 

I kept milling around with other tenants trying to get some info, and about an hour and a half to two hours after it started, I learned that the fire had actually been in the front building, not mine, that it was at the far end of that building furthest away from us, and that firefighters had managed to contain the fire to that building. That is miraculous in that the breeze was blowing back into the complex (the smoke and ash were so bad people had to put on masks) and there are multiple buildings adjacent to the one that burned. If embers had blown onto any of them we would have had a huge catastrophe. As it was, several units in the other building were total losses - those people lost everything - and the remaining tenants had to vacate. The Red Cross showed up and they were eventually put into a hotel down the street. The following day management began placing them in vacant units. I don't know if they're all settled or what's going on, but apparently they aren't going to be able to go back in that building any time soon. I did see a number of people over the past week bringing bags out of there and the other day they were taking out furniture. 

Later that evening everyone except the residents of the burned building were cleared to go home. We were told the gas had been shut off, but I didn't care. I was so grateful to have my home to go back to that I really don't care about any inconveniences. When I ran out of here that afternoon, I believed my building was in flames and that I really might be left with only what I'd grabbed before I left. I still think it's miraculous that only one building was damaged, but I feel sick for the tenants in that building. As traumatic as the experience was for me, it's a thousand times worse for them. We also haven't heard so far what caused the fire.

Minor inconveniences: The gas in my building didn't come back on until late Tuesday afternoon. Pretty much everything in the apartment is electric, so the only thing I was really missing was hot water, and again, after thinking my home was going to go up in smoke, it wasn't something I could get worked up about. We eventually got our cars out but they vacated the garage (which is under both my and the front building) but they parked me in the next building over, so it's not really any sort of inconvenience. We shared a bank of mailboxes with the other building, just outside their door, so we have to go to the post office in Venice to pick up our mail. With the area between our buildings taped off (with security guards) the elevator isn't available, although I think it's okay since it's technically in my building. And I just don't care about any of this. All I can think of is how different (and awful) the past week would have been had the fire really been in my building, or if it had spread. 

One of the things you always hear in a situation like this is that the important thing is getting people and pets out, which is true, and that everything else is just "stuff", which is partially true. There are things I could replace, and others I couldn't. It would suck to lose all my books, my cookbooks, my notes from culinary school. All my CDs and DVDs, all my kitchen and cooking stuff. All my clothes. I wouldn't even have a change of clothes. The idea of having to go out and rebuild a wardrobe, get all new bras, underwear, socks, shoes, coats, is daunting to think about. 
Then there are the items with sentimental value. I have my Grandmother's wedding ring and my Mom's wedding ring from when she and my Dad remarried. Items from their homes. And pictures - both of my parents are deceased. There aren't going to be any more pictures of them. Gifts from them that mean a lot to me. Some things really aren't replaceable. 

If there's one thing I learned from this experience is how unprepared I was for it. I have an emergency kit, but I'd always thought of it more in terms of having a major earthquake and having to go an extended period of time without electricity. I have canned goods, cat food, water, and a boatload of first aid and other emergency supplies that came with the earthquake kit I bought ages ago. Some of this stuff expired and I replaced it with current supplies. I have cash stashed in there in case I need to buy stuff and the electronic payment system is down. What I never thought about was having a bag ready to go if I had to leave immediately. In fact, I didn't even think of grabbing it on my way out. It didn't even occur to me. I was so terrified and rushed that I couldn't think straight. I had the cat and my phone and wallet, and that seemed sufficient at the time, because what I really didn't want to do was be stuck in a burning building because I was too busy getting my "stuff". There really is a surreal sense of disbelief that, "this is actually happening" and it's hard to know what to do.

So I'm in the process of putting together what I think of as a "bugout bag", something I can grab (in addition to what I did take). Here are some of the items on the list so far:
  • A list of accounts, account numbers, usernames, passwords, phone numbers, contact info. Things like credit cards, insurance companies, any organization I deal with. I also forgot to grab the Day Timer that has all this info in it (I'm old and don't store this info on my phone.)
  • Cash. It's coming out of the earthquake kit and into the bugout bag. As a rule I don't carry large amounts, and on the day of the fire I had all of $4 on me. And my ATM card was in the RFID case left on my desk along with the credit cards.
  • An extra credit card. I have one that I use so rarely that I don't carry it. Guess where I'll be storing it now.
  • A disposable catbox and catfood.
  • Extra clothes, including socks and underwear. 
  • Spare toothpaste, deodorant, and soap.
  • A spare phone charger.
  • A case that I can quickly load the laptop, mouse, and charging cord into.
  • Scanned family photos on a jump drive. Backups of my writing projects on a jump drive in case I don't get to the laptop.
  • Copies of important documents like my birth certificate and insurance policies (auto and renters); also my social security card and passport.
The fire alarm in my building has gone off a couple of times since the fire, only for a few seconds each time, but if they're testing them it would be nice if they'd warn us. It's really unnerving. I've noticed that seeing fire trucks and hearing sirens has the same distressing effect; I assume that will fade with time.

I couldn't bring myself to take pictures during the fire, but this was the view looking down my driveway from inside the complex (although you can see white smoke from the fire in the first pic):

Three delivery trucks - Fed Ex, Amazon, and USPS - were delivering at the time and got stuck inside for hours because the driveway was roped off due to all the fire department vehicles. I don't think they got out until 8-9pm.

And here's Sophie, a couple of hours into her ordeal behind bars:

She was actually okay when we got home, hungry but surprisingly little worse for wear.

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