1. I’ve changed the title of this blog 3X. That’s a first.
2. I’ve not been home for this ‘anniversary’ for the past few years. It’s weird, because it was the one date I’ve cared about being home. I like being at home.
3. Life can be great, complex, joyful, difficult – basically a cornucopia of change. These are a time honored truths.
So… Here we are.
Ten years ago today my house and all posessions burned in the “Old Fire”. We only lived in the home for 18 months. The fire raged for 9 days, burning into cities, across the hillside and up into mountain communities. It is billed as the second worst fire in the history of California.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years. The memories are still so clear, the financial recovery took longer than expected. Add it all up – and where did 10 years go? Where does it ever go? Work, advantages, family, home – basically filled with living. But, I can’t help but reflect on such a twisted, tragic life change today.
HERE’S WHAT WENT DOWN
Late on the morning of Saturday, October 25, 2003 I was taking a much needed nap. I had an exhausting month. Both my parents died after long bouts of cancer a month before; and I was a walking zombie. They were very good people, whom I miss terribly. I remember being exhausted. I remember it being almost noon when I went to take a nap. During my nap, a lady from church called about the fires and to see if we were okay. My husband had not heard about fires and stated we were fine. A little later, a neighbor knocked on the door to tell him they were evacuating. Thank God for that neighbor.
My husband asked, “What do we do?” (He grew up in Ohio & I in SoCal). I was really only prepared for earthquakes and thought we just needed to get out of the way of the fire department. I could hardly believe a fire was coming & we really needed to evacuate. We hadn’t heard there was a fire, and there were no signs – so it seemed so odd.
It went from surreal, to seeming like a movie set.
GRAB N GO
We packed three days of clothes, and grabbed only a few mementos. I thought we might be ‘camping’ somewhere and we grabbed sleeping bags & pillows too. We didn’t remember to take toothbrushes or comfortable shoes. I grabbed a dress for church on Sunday and a couple suits for the next few days of work. My shoes didn’t even match. We didn’t see the fire coming because there wasn’t any warning. No police cars drove down the street and made announcements or PSAs. We quickly grabbeddifferent a few things and meet at a good friends house, a couple miles away. My husband grabbed a few things and watered the roof. He left our dead-end road, before the black smoke over took it.
The weather was not on our side that day. The Santa Ana winds were blowing hard that day and sparks jumped from tall palm trees and blew/swirled around and lit other houses and palm frons on fire.
After we met up at a friends house with our pets and a few belongings – we thought the sky by home was looking very dark. We watched in amazement as large ashes floated all around the yard and over parked cars, seeming to be like a light blanket of snow. We raced back up to the neighborhood, and drove right past a police barracade. I watched in horror as roofs and trees all around us were burning. A home to the right was on fire, engulfed with 30 foot flames. I’ve never seen anything like it and hope never to see anything like it again.
Others were smoldering. The whole neighborhood smelled like a bad barbecue. We drove to the neighbors house who lives behind us, up their driveway and into their dirt part of the backyard to the fence that separates our property.
ASHES TO ASHES
Our house was already burned down and smoldering. My husband jumped the fence and raced to the house. I couldn’t see the point and slowly walked up to it’s damaged, blackened shell. The barn and arena were gone. The flag was flying, but half burned. Most plants were gone and the tall cypress looked like black toothpicks. The neighbor’s house was still burning. A firetruck was parked on the other side of the bridge and the firemen told us it was too far gone, when they drove up. They offered us a bottle of water, which we gladly accepted.
Afterwards, there were many things I wish we grabbed. But, we were safe and all the pets were safe. In the end, that’s all that matters. The only pet still alive from before the fire (BTF) is Garrett the Parrot. He’s been with me for decades, and is about 25 years old now.
We were also thrust into the world of insurance claims. We were very diligent and started our list of personal belongings, household items lists immediately, while things were still fresh in our memories. An adjustor came over to the rubble and ashes, looked around and took a few measiurements. When we received our itemized loss statement from the insurance company, it was hard to read. My husband and I are both college educated, yet found their paperwork confusing. There were many items that seemed underbid and other items were missing from their list. It became evident they were in the business of cutting their losses, not replacing our loss.
We were grossly underinsured. We exchanged letters regularly with the adjuster; about two a month. We eventually filed a complaint with the California Insurance Commissioner and through mediation, the insurance company did finally agree to pay the costs to rebuild the new home – they only agreed to pay coverage A. Coverages B, C and D are all percentages of coverage A. In simple terms, we lost our home, belongings, all our landscaping, our pool was ruined, our barn and arena were burned down. Trees fell on some fences and the property was no longer enclosed and new fenceing was required. So, most of these items were paid out of pocket. The insurance company eventually admitted to incorrectly insuring our home.
We are no longer insured with them. They shall remain nameless. I hate seeing their tv commercials, because they seem disingenuous.
We were homeless for 18 months. Ironic. We were out as long as we live in the home. First we lived in student housing (I worked at a University). Next we were grateful for a friends 25 foot trailer, until we discovered a leak in the roof during a rain storm. We bought our own 40 foot trailer, while the new home was bring rebuilt. Comparatively it seemed like a palace. At the end, I called it my ‘canister of life’ and was SO thrilled to have running water and regular ceilings again.
Things you should know about insurance:
Your home is probably under-insured. It seems most people were under-insured. Read and understand your policy – NOW.
In the event of a tragedy. Don’t take your insurance companies first offer. Do your own research. Question. Document. Follow up.
In total, the “Old Fire” burned 993 houses, and was the cause of 6 deaths. It was officially contained on my birthday. I don’t remember the day it was contained, or much of a celebration that year. I remember church friends taking my the the Old Spaghetti Factory, and the most precious present that night was a bag of ‘hand me down’ clothes. I loved them. I don’t like to shop for clothes, so the last thing I wanted to do was go shopping. This was perfect for me. Life can be short, pass quickly, and unexpected things happen. I be sure to celebrate little things now. I try to be a blessing to others, and mend the world within my reach. My hope is to make my corner of the world a little brighter than I found it.
Courage is found in action, learned and earned. Doug Hall
Lessons Learned – Some Fit Any Situation:
1. Trust God, no matter the circumstance.
2. No matter how tough the situation seems – I (& You) are not Job. (This was a good reminder)
3. Insurance company was not on our side – they ‘want to cut their losses’.
4. It’s okay to accept help from others, even if you are used to offering it.
5. Any day can be special. Use the nice china & wear the nice jewelry while you have it.
6. Never give up. No matter how hard life may seem at the moment. Just keep going.
7. Stare down adversity and rebuild / just keep working at your goal.
8. Things will get better and time heals all wounds.
9. Projects can be recreated, new clothes can be purchased, sometimes trees will replant themselves.
10. When you are back on your feet, it’s time to give back to community.
11. Time does pass quickly – even though at times it seemed to move as slow as molasses in Vermont in December.
12. Listen & learn from Christopher Robin to Pooh Bear;
Promise me you’ll always remember you’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. – Christopher Robin