Sunday, April 29, 2007

Burning Questions

I almost had to evacuate last night; the duplex a few doors down from mine caught fire. I was watching a movie at the time and instantly knew something was going on --- within minutes the air changed from a harsh "someone's barbecuing nearby" to a much more serious, acrid smell, a smell of paints and chemicals as well as wood. I saw orange reflected on the low-hanging cloud cover and got up to peer out the window; that was when the sirens and cop-car lights began to arrive.

Now I know the rules --- or at least vaguely remember the safety first filmstrips from school --- for escaping one's own burning building, but I was a little at a loss to know what to do about the neighboring building being on fire. I quick put on shoes and a sweatshirt and packed my laptop and phone in my bag and headed outside. (The computer ---- and the time and effort put in on the dissertation that's on it ---- are probably the only real items of value in here. The rest would just be inconvenient or saddening to replace.) The cops had made a blockade and were diverting traffic down the little alley road off my street. Some groups of people were milling around. Outside, the smoky smell was just as strong but it was even clearer that it included plastic and other building materials, probably insidiously taking away from my lifespan or mutating little cells inside me. But that was of secondary importance: what I wanted to know was, should I be packing up my cats and evacuating? Where should I go and how long would I be gone?

Even in a potential emergency I'm no good at going up and breaking in on a conversation, so I stood around for a while and watched the red-and-blue police car lights mingle with the glowing orange clouds overhead, until someone said "I think it's the gas station" and someone else "there's a gas station further down?" and everyone broke up and went back in their houses. There is a gas station, and it is across the street and several streets down from me, so I figured --- but was not sure, it being California and all --- that I could just stay inside and hopefully someone would come tell me to leave if the fire was not contained.

Once back inside I was too rattled to go back to my movie and couldn't figure out how to get the information I wanted. How does one find breaking news about an emergency-which-may-not-be-an-emergency? The radio stations weren't saying (and it had only been a half hour), and the internet was less than helpful. Obviously no one thinks to post advisories for neighbors to evacuate from next to a burning house on the internet, but I did find articles on: California's record-level drought, even for recent years, articles about the last big wildfires in the area taking down whole neighborhoods with them, a warning that wildfires would be coming early and more severely to my county this year, and a Severe Wildfire Warning, posted yesterday, for the region I am living in. So you can see that I have justification in being worried ---- if not beforehand, then after getting on the internet and working myself into a state. But in the end I decided that the police and fire people probably had it under control, and surely they had some sort of training or backup plan to inform people and move them if a fire did get out of control, and tried to go to sleep.

I slept horribly, though ---- every noise woke me and made me sure that I would have to battle my way down my rickety wooden stairs in flames a la Backdraft, a cat under each arm and my computer slung across my back. I also had cramps and a backache, but couldn't bring myself to take something to knock myself out as I had visions of myself sleeping through a massive fire. I hope that this will die down as time passes, for I'm quite neurotic enough already and need my sleep ---- I spend enough nights worrying about my work, the job market, global warming etc., and adding worries about everything else about life I can't control would only serve to make me completely insane.

I will, however, be getting renter's insurance ---- something I knew nothing about and even when I did finally hear about it, assume that it was a) too expensive and b) something that would never happen to me ---- and possibly, a fire extinguisher for the kitchen, as I am incredibly clumsy and the extinguisher is outside bolted to the (rickety wooden) stair railing. One of the downsides of living in a cute little historic section, besides the astronomical rent, is that, as my friend put it, all that dry hundred-year-old wood riddled by termite damage is like tinder for a blaze ---- and she should know since a building just next door to hers just went up like a rocket, leaving nothing but some charred beams and foundations. That's not counting the professor of ours whose apartment building burned to the ground a few years ago, so I probably should be counting my blessings that I have made it so luckily so far.

And the building? I walked down to see it on my way to my local coffee place. It's not the gas station; it's a cute little duplex on my side of the street, on the same block as the little alleyway they were diverting traffic through, much closer than I had thought. The front, near the window, has the most damage, which makes me wonder if it was started by a candle on the dining room table or something. And piled on the front lawn are heaps of scorched carpet, charred bits of what might be end tables or chairs, a shell of a mattress, scorched melted dishes, and all the other effluvia of a life.


heu mihi said...

Yes--get renter's insurance! It's cheap (20% or less of what it would take to replace your computer), and while in grad school I've known 2 people whose apartments have burned down--here, in the rainy East!--and at least two more who've been thoroughly burgled.

About 9 years ago I witnessed a fire in the house next door to me. It turned out not to be too bad, but I vividly remember a woman leaning out of an upstairs window in her nightdress, with the glow of flames behind her. She was shouting to the firefighters for help. The sound of her voice stayed with me for days--it wasn't a scream; it wasn't like anything I'd ever heard before. A bellow, a howl. It was clear to me, watching her (at 3 am from my bedroom window, terrified) that she thought that she had a good chance of dying.

(Not to scare you or anything. And hey, everyone was okay--the fire only affected the garage.)

Sisyphus said...

Yikes! I'm on it.