Family, General, the house fire

There’s a package of meat that’s been sitting on my stove for 45 days.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about the house fire, but it’s difficult because even in my own thoughts I’ve come to the point of throwing up my hands in despair.

And yes, I did indeed take a package of ground beef out of the freezer the night of the fire, and put it on the stove to thaw for the next day. And yes, it’s STILL THERE.

If anyone is considering burning their house down (or portions of their house down) for the insurance money, I STRONGLY recommend against it. TV movies notwithstanding, the pace at which things actually happen is so impossibly slow that you will seriously consider campaigning for congress on the sole platform of making insurance companies pay up in a reasonable amount of time.

Here’s roughly how it’s gone so far:

The fire totaled two rooms in our eight-room house: our master bedroom and a small room next to that room. It wrecked windows and so on but didn’t burn through the roof (at least we don’t think it did–we haven’t checked to see if water has been leaking when it rains).

We initially thought that we’d have to repair those rooms, but could do some good cleaning in the rest of the house and be OK.

We were SO WRONG.

The huge problem is this: The actual fire was confined to those rooms. However, the fire began and was fed almost entirely by plastics; the candle fell against our TiVo box, lit that and our cable box and DVD player on fire, fell down and burned up the TV and stereo, spread over to the other stereo, then to a catalog of roughly 500 DVDs, from there to wiring… you get the picture.

(Explanatory aside: Doug is a huge movie wonk with a master’s in communications, specifically radio/TV, so not only did we have a million blinking black boxes with various functions that I do not understand, we had hundreds and hundreds of movies and DVDs and CDs that he had collected or been given or had been sent as “screeners” (or whatever you call screeners when they’re music-related) over the years. Many of them had never even been opened, either because they were part of a collection or (this applies to the CDs) because they were special screeners or advance releases that were sent only to radio stations and so were too fragile or fancy to be in general use–what record companies send to radio stations are often VERY unique, in crazy packaging or a different cover or the tracks are a totally different order, with the desired singles in different positions on the CD, etc. Every single piece of electronics and all the movies and music were, of course, in the only “safe” room in the house, the master bedroom.)

Once the fire ate the entertainment center and then the big stereo tower, it moved in two directions: to our bed and burned up the mattress, and to a big laminate bookcase that burned but for some reason did not spread to the books. Mid-way through the fire the bookcase itself collapsed and dumped MY obsessive collection of a zillion paperback books in a way that closed and blocked off the bedroom door. So when the firemen (I didn’t see any women there, but maybe firepeople is better? Firehumans?) got there they had to break down the door to get in.

So that sets the scene: Two rooms on fire, and lots and lots and lots of water dumped on it. The water totaled a certain radius around the rooms, but the rest of the house didn’t actively LOOK bad.Well, no, that’s not true–it did look bad, in terms of being filthy and wet and with piles of stuff that was wet and filthy and did I mention that everything was wet and filthy? So I was imagining having to come in there with buckets and hot water and having to take fifty loads to the laundromat, but I had a mental handle on it.

Two days later, when we were allowed back in and went through the house with the public adjuster we hired (reminder: public adjuster is sort of an ambulance chaser who represents you to the insurance company and tries to get you a good settlement; absolutely essential for us because we are totally trusting and naive) we found out that looks can be deceiving. Because of the super-plasticky nature of the fire, the coating of black over EVERYTHING on every surface of every room that we thought was “just” soot is actually not. It’s burned and melted plastic. When you touch it with your finger, it doesn’t smear or come off. It’s aerosolized plastic.

This means that EVERYTHING is contaminated. The black icky stuff is carcinogenic and it’s horribly dangerous especially to Honour, our ten-year-old, who has spent much too much time in hospitals and on oxygen in her little life for me to ever risk illness with her. It sticks to and cannot be removed from anything that is plastic or fabric or leather or paper. It can be scrubbed off sealed wood, stone, ceramic, or metal.

So now, if you can stand it, look around the room you’re in and identify everything that doesn’t have any plastic, leather, paper, or fabric. If it’s wood it has to be sealed and water-safe. If you have a fire, that’s what you can keep. Everything else has to get thrown out.

And so then, with that announcement, began the endless and endless and ENDLESS process of coordinating the ten companies and fifty processes to get the house livable again.

Here’s what’s happened so far:

Our contractor boarded up the two rooms and drained the plumbing.

A company came in and ripped out the walls and ceiling in the two burned rooms, and then set up generators (no electricity or heat in the house, of course) to dry out the frame of the house back there.

Another company came in and removed, laundered, and delivered to us at our temporary housing all the clothing that could be safely returned. This amounted to the contents of one mostly unused closet upstairs in the kids’ room (it was OK because the doors had been closed) and Honour’s laundry basket. So I received twelve big bags full of Easter dresses, Halloween costumes, outgrown clothes, four quilts (none handmade),  mismatched socks, summer tee-shirts, and a bunch of Honour’s jeans. Every other piece of cloth in the house was put on “the list” to replace–my entire wardrobe, Doug’s, ninety percent of Meri’s and Tabitha’s, all of Zuzu’s, and all the crates of toddler clothes that had been waiting for Zuzu to grow into.

Our contractor went back in (when it became apparent just how long this was going to be) and completely drained the entire system (the little bits that would be left in the well pump and the hot water heater and so on) and put antifreeze everywhere.

Yet another company came in and inventoried the house and gave rough replacement value to some items. Doug and I spent the next two weeks adding to the list and refining replacement values (ever tried to get a value for a piece of electronic esoterica that Amazon has never heard of? How about 20-year-old Breyer horses?)

Next, our contractor went in a third time with the building inspector to talk about what will need to be replaced to get an occupancy permit.

Company B came back and removed the generators and the pieces of furniture that can be saved (dining table, china cabinet, kids’ beds, very little else).

Our contractor went BACK in with the electrical inspector. This time the news was a little more unexpected: because the repairs to the fire create “opportunity,” most if not all of the house has to be brought up to code. This is a house that was built in the 50s as a complete DIY job by two guys named Bob and Ned, seriously. The electric is a MESS. Absolutely nothing is even close to code; there WAS no code in our town until probably 20 years ago.

In order to bring the electric to code, the basement ceilings need to come down. Once the ceilings are down, you have to re-insulate. If you re-insulate, you need to install new smoke detectors and heat sensors. If you do THAT, you need to chain them up to the second floor. If you open the second floor ceilings, you need to replace the wiring… it’s like If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, only instead of a glass of milk you give him tens of thousands of dollars of code upgrades.

We’re now up to this week, which involved a rollercoaster of fun including the contractor BACK in the house with the electrical subcontractor, working up a bid, and tomorrow our public adjustor goes through the house with the insurance company’s adjustor and begins (BEGINS!) the process of developing a big giant number that will eventually become a claim.

We have been warned that once the big giant number is submitted, it will take up to 60 days, even 90 is not outside the realm of possibility, before the claim is approved and the check is cut.

So that puts us out to somewhere in April, maybe. March at the absolute earliest.

And then, ONLY THEN, does the electric get turned back on and the construction begin. That’s estimated at three months. Ordinarily I’d double that, but our contractor is actually fast and honest so I can trust him.

And, meanwhile, the house is slowly rotting away, the drywall is cracking because of the sub-zero temperatures, and the fridge and freezer are still full. Sitting in my kitchen, full.

And we’re closing in on 50 days of that meat sitting on the stove.

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  • Reply Emily~ DreamEyce January 26, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    I don’t envy you, not at all! Don’t worry, I never had any romantic ideas about my home being ruined to flames! *giggle*

    I’m glad you have friends to help you guys get back on your feet- a place to stay. Of all the things in the world, the most valuable, friends, and family, aren’t even things at all :)

  • Reply Jeri January 26, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    I’d say that maybe it’s better if the whole thing burns down, but then you have to try to put a value on things that are now ASH and I can imagine that part is no fun either. I’ve heard it said once that you should go around and take photos of every room in your house and store it either in a fireproof safe, or at someone else’s house. Obviously you don’t want to update photos all the time, but even if they were a couple years old it would give you a starting point.

    I can’t even begin to imagine the mess and how long this whole process is going to take you. *hugs*

  • Reply penni January 26, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    I’m so sorry, Joanna. I’m sure you have many a night when you think this will never end. Visualize “Phoenix from ashes”. Everyone out here is still sending supportive thoughts.

  • Reply mamallama January 27, 2009 at 12:18 am

    Wow. I had no idea a “small” fire was such a big deal.

    Wishing you peace. And patience. And smooth going on the road ahead.


  • Reply Kim (LittleRockstar) January 27, 2009 at 10:57 am

    Good on you for hiring a public adjuster. My doctor’s house burned a few years ago and it took 12 months for insurance to offer more than $10,000. Two years after the fire, they finally moved back in. They didn’t think they were going to need a public adjuster. They were wrong.

    Thank you for warning against dreaming that the house will burn. I guess I’ll have to clean it after all.

  • Reply mittelspitz January 28, 2009 at 7:20 am

    Well, on the plus side, smoked meat, kept cold, keeps pretty much indefinitely, no? ;p

    (Am extremely sleep deprived; Rittie’s temp FINALLY dropped right before I was about to go to bed so I’m sleeping on the floor again. Urgh. Hurry up and get here, puppies, I want to sleep in a bed again.)

  • Reply gingerstar January 28, 2009 at 9:58 am

    Another wish for peace, patience, and smooth going. I can’t imagine…. but I hope that this time goes quickly, and soon you will be able to put this behind you. I’m so glad Doug was able to get the girls and dogs out!
    I got a good giggle at your inventive terms – firehuman?!? lol. Since I am the wife of a firefighter!! (Most commonly used term these days, since our dept, like many, has a couple females.)

  • Reply kids room furniture, kids bedroom furniture, kids chairs January 28, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Everything will be better. I think that. ^_^

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