When you go through an important event, especially a loss, it’s almost as if you become a member of an exclusive new club. Everyone who has had a similar experience shares it with you. When I suffered a miscarriage, many people I had known for years revealed their own miscarriage experiences to me for the first time, including my own mother. The same thing happened after I had the fire at my house. Friends, colleagues, even strangers told me stories about their house fires. Who knew it was so common?
Before my own house burned, my experience with fire had been limited to my years in California. Before I moved to southern CA, I never knew that the west was always going up in flames, but sure enough, come summer the tell-tale smell of burning forests would fill the air. It’s a smell you never forget. The fires were generally up in the San Bernardino mountains and I rarely saw smoke, let alone flames. Until 2003. That autumn was hot and dry. For a week in October, I’d actually see some bright orange flames up in the mountains, so I knew they were big. The air quality got worse and worse. The “Old Fire” spread and one Saturday night, the kids and I watched from my bedroom window as the entire mountain range was ablaze with fire. My son pointed out the zigzag running down the mountain into the city of San Bernardino, only 10 miles away. The “Old Fire” eventually claimed about 1000 homes and 6 lives. I taught at a school in San Bernardino and 45 of our students lost their homes; many had only what they could grab and stuff into a backpack. Schools closed for a week because the air was so bad. For several days, flakes fell on my yard like snow – ashes from the forests and people’s homes. Later I drove around parts of the city that were affected. It was an eerie landscape as some houses were burned to the ground, some half standing, and others on the same street not even touched by flames.
After my house fire, several colleagues told me about their family history with fire. One colleague had been a little boy. All he knew is that he’d gone to bed and later woken up in some neighbor’s arms outside, watching his house burn. At the time, he was fascinated by the fire. Now he realizes how tough it was on his parents to rebuild. Another colleague told me how her retired parents had lost much of their house and personal property in a fire. They had lived in the country then and it took some time before the firefighters could reach them. Oh well, her mother said, I’ve been meaning to downsize before we moved into town. Perhaps it takes age to be so philosophical about such an event. My realtor also experienced a fire, or rather, her son did. She was away on a trip when it happened, just as I was, and she waited for months before she could return to her house. Who knew when I chose her and her husband the month before my fire that we would soon have this in common? I’ve heard many other fire stories and what strikes me is how resilient people are when faced with difficult circumstances. This gives me hope that once the immediate effect of my house fire has passed, I, too, will bounce back.