Lessons from a fire

Last Thursday I watched in horror as my neighbor’s house, which belonged to an elderly couple, burned down. I was even more horrified and saddened to learn later that evening that one person, the wife, was killed. Her name was Patsy. I did not know Patsy, but I saw her working in her beautiful garden often. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined.

Patsy and her husband lived across the street from their daughter and her family. I watched helplessly as the granddaughter sobbed while the firemen worked hard to extinguish the blaze. We did not know at the time that she may have known her grandmother was still inside.

We haven’t been strangers to fires in Austin. The prolonged drought has meant that a burn ban has been in effect for almost two years, and we witnessed the 2011 devastation caused by fires in Bastrop (where half of the Lost Pines ecosystem may never recover) and Steiner Ranch. The community rallied then, and my neighborhood did the same in a big way during the last few days to support this family during this traumatic event. Last night there was a memorial service for Patsy at our park.

Over the weekend I started the process of becoming better prepared in the event of a fire, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts with you. First, I sat down with my daughter and we talked through the evacuation plan on the first floor and the second floor and where to meet outside should we get separated. A lamp post is a great place we decided, since we would find each other easily at night. It also turns out I need a couple of escape ladders in the bedrooms. They are now on the list for my next Home Depot run. I then devised the plan for getting our dog out and made it clear to my daughter that’s not her responsibility. I checked the smoke detectors and replaced the batteries. I taught my daughter how to use the emergency buttons on the alarm system. I moved the outdoor gas grill further away from the house. And we vowed to not allow my brother-in-law to ever make toast or my sister to ever boil water at our house again. Inside joke, but I’m serious.

Then I started thinking about all the ‘stuff’. First came the list of things that would be heartbreaking to lose: my art, my daughter’s art, original works of art I have purchased or been gifted, old family documents, handwritten letters from my childhood through around 1995 when email became prevalent, yearbooks, older non-digital photographs and videos, my daughter’s baby keepsakes, some treasured books, my Latin American “fachadas” that I collected over the course of a twelve-year career working in the region, and some sentimental jewelry.

I am going to prioritize photographing and cataloging all of these first and ensure I save the files in the cloud and on a USB stick that I will ask my sister to keep for me. Then I’ll catalog and photograph everything else: electronics, furniture, clothing, kitchen gadgets, etc. I also started thinking about grouping some of the more emotionally valuable items together (they are currently stored lovingly in boxes in various places in the home) and keeping them in a place close to the likely evacuation point.

What does your list look like? Maybe a beloved instrument makes your list. Or an old record collection. Or a one-of-a-kind family heirloom.

This is a tedious task, but as I started the process this weekend, I found great joy in the task also. I read some of the letters my grandmother in Spain had written me when I was a child, telling me what was happening to my favorite Spanish TV show character, Marco. I thumbed through some funny college photographs, and got to hear my daughter tell me my hair was “too big and fluffy.” I had to explain to her again how the 80’s was the best decade EVER. I found my 5th grade project on painter Diego Velazquez, and I remembered how at such a young age I was captivated by oil painting.

And as I was reliving these memories, sparked by the objects, it dawned on me that not only did a man lose his wife on Thursday, but he also probably lost so many of the objects that would remind him of her and comfort him moving forward: photographs, letters, jewelry, her gardening tools…

This scene I imagined was heartbreaking and has put an even healthier perspective on this combination of wood, limestone, and metal that I have spent so much time and effort decorating and maintaining the last 19 years.

5 thoughts on “Lessons from a fire

Add yours

  1. What a great post. It is something we don’t think about often, planning for emergencies,
    but as you have so eloquently outlined it just takes a little focus and the benefit and piece
    if mind is worth it.

    I too have a list of my assets with pictures to support the rare and high value items. I also invested in a fire and water safe lock box…. Where I keep all the documentation and some extra cash. (don’t forget if we loose power we loose ATMs and credit card machines 🙂


  2. Teresa, That is tragic. I’m so sorry for your neighbor’s loss. The most frightening part of escaping the Bastrop fire was when my husband and I became separated in the thick smoke. I didn’t let him leave my sight for weeks after that !

    Keeping digital files in a remote place is good, especially the photos and catalog of your possessions, as well as important paperwork. Even my music, books and movies are nearly all digital now. And having a plan to save cherished mementos and heirlooms is smart too; there are a few certain items I wish I had been able to save. But I would gladly give up all that stuff again to know that my family is safe.

    And just FYI, many of my neighbors had fire safe lock boxes, and at least one of them had quite a bit of cash in the box. While the box didn’t melt, the heat of the fire incinerated all of the paper inside it.


    1. Jo, your blog post is beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience. I’m so glad to know that you’re doing well!


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