Wednesday, October 24, 2007

BEST OF: After a fire

A longer version of this column first ran in a special section in the San Luis Obispo Telegram Tribune in July, 1994, following the Highway 41 fire and three months after Kathe and Richard Tanner's home burned to the ground.

An open letter to fire victims from someone who’s been there

Our hearts go out to you. We do know what you're going through — our home burned down several years ago. That single-house incident didn't have the magnitude of the inferno that wiped out your home or business, but we did have our own little firestorm with high winds, fast-moving flames and backdrafts. It's terrifying, and the anguish is something you really can't explain to someone who hasn't been there.

If these tidbits of information we learned after our fire can ease your situation a little, that's all we ask.

1. Rely on others during this time of adjustment. Now is not the time to be independent. After our fire, we learned that people really wanted to be helpful, giving and supportive. We wound up accepting kindnesses from folks we didn't even know then, but do now. We were, and still are, very grateful for their help.

And it’s OK if you don’t want to be around someone’s candles, campfire, barbecue pit or fireplace. We still don’t.

2. Don't give up too easily or too soon — keep looking through what's left, even though it can be terribly painful. There may be some amazing things buried in those ashes.

We found remains of sculptures my mother did, a little sapphire pendant my husband gave me on our first Christmas together, undamaged photos, some antique silver that was my great grandmother's — absolutely astonishing finds.

And cherish the bizarre and humorous: The fire reduced our furniture to a pile of charcoal and ash. However, in what had been one drawer, we found a pristine bag of absolutely dreadful gag gifts and a cellophane sack of rubber balloons. Go figure.

3. Don't assume the remains of things will be right where you left them. We found items 100 feet away from where they'd been before the fire, blown there perhaps by the exploding fire, or maybe by the force of the water from the fire hoses.

4. If something you retrieved from the ashes is intact but absolutely nasty looking because it's coated with hard-caked soot and gook and grime, don't despair. We'd gone through literally hundreds of dollars worth of specialty cleaners, scrubbers, cleansers and soaking liquids before we discovered that a simple engine cleaner from the auto parts store worked best of all for us. You can soak things in it straight from the bottle, or dilute it a bit to scrub with. It’s not toxic. It removes the gunk on hard-surfaced items (but won't work on fabric). Wear gloves only because it will dry out your hands.

We used Super Clean to retrieve dozens of items encased in glop, including a set of ruby-flashed, cut-crystal highball glasses that belonged to my great grandmother.

5. The sheer magnitude of trying to remember everything you had in your home is enough to make anybody want to play Rip Van Winkle for a few years, no matter how helpful your insurance agent, adjuster and other official types are. But hang in there. It's worth it.

6. Before listing the entire contents of your house — including every pair of shoes and each paring knife — call anyone to whom you might have sent photographs of family gatherings in your home. Birthdays, holidays, graduations, even pictures you took because Cousin Willie looked so dumb sound asleep upside down on the sofa.

Say what you will about the photo, it proves you had a sofa and what it looked like. Other things in the photo will jog your memory.

Compile the pictures, make color photocopies for the insurance company and then start getting your list down on paper.

7. Talking to an agent in another office helped. He was totally uninvolved, extremely nice and deciphered several things in the policy that just didn't make sense, because they didn't seem to be in English.

8. Insurance companies sell you “contents replacement value,” and charge you extra for it. After the fire, they'll give you the depreciated value of each item you had after your list is approved, but only pay you the rest once you've bought your replacements.

9. Replacement value on the house itself means they give you actual cash value (their calculations, not yours) for the house at the beginning of construction, then pay the balance at the end of the reconstruction.

10. Rather quickly, the insurance company paid us for immediate living expenses, then gave us an advance on our contents insurance. First, we bought another set of underwear (drying a bra with a hairdryer is useless) and jackets so we wouldn’t freeze at night. The next check we received, quite a while later, was reimbursement for things we had on separate insurance riders.

11. Take your time. Keep your options open. Don’t let people rush you. If you set your mind to it, the search through the ashes can be a treasure hunt and plans for rebuilding are a new beginning. But getting to that point emotionally can take time.

12. If you have willing, helpful listeners in your immediate support team, you're in good shape. We had wonderful friends, including a former co-worker who’d gone through the same thing four months earlier. His advice and love were invaluable.

If you're short on listeners, find a trauma support group and go to the meetings. Let out your anger, hurt and frustration or they will make you sick, literally. And, if you need us, call. We're in the book.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Replace the word “fire” with “divorce” and you can use this article again.

This is wonderful, uplifting advice, and even if the reader doesn’t have a fire in their past or future, the encouraging attitude will apply to how they view the current fires, or any other disaster in their experience. I’m keeping this one.