How to be prepared for a home fire
A home fire is something I hope you will NEVER experience, but it is better to be prepared, if possible. Heavy subject, I know.
But it needs to be discussed.
Honestly, this has been a really hard post to write.
In fact, it has taken me YEARS to share my experience and I still get teary eyed thinking about the house fire.
I didn’t want this to be a post of woe, but a mix of information to help you and a story of resilience.
My hope is that it can help prepare you, so that if you ever experience a home fire, that you are prepared to preserve the important things as well as a few tips to deal with the aftermath.
First things first.
Back in 2014 I received a call while I was at work.
Several actually. A call came in on my personal cell that I did not recognize.
I ignored it thinking that if it was important, they would leave a message.
4 more calls, no messages.
Then my work cell rang, caller ID was the same number.
I finally answered.
Few people have both my personal cell and work cell. So I answered it this time thinking i t must be pretty important.
Turns out, it was. When I answered, the caller identified herself as an officer with our local police department calling.
My heart sank. The first thing that made my heart jump out of my chest was thinking something happened to my daughter.
No, thankfully, it wasn’t my daughter..
The officer told me the house was on fire.
As I rushed home, I was telling the officers there were 3 pets in the house.
1 dog, 2 cats. Please tell me they are OK!
“We have the dog and one cat at your neighbors house”.
I was crying in to the phone, “but I have TWO cats, there are 2 cats…what about the second cat?” as I sped home.
Unfortunately, when I arrived home to find the house filled with smoke and multiple firetrucks and first responders…
… I was told one of the cats did not make it.
It was our fluffy cat, Boo.
I still miss her.
I could bear thinking of her being tortured by the fire.
She passed peacefully from smoke inhalation, asleep in my bed, above the kitchen where the fire took place.
The shock of the fire, the sight, the smells and loosing Boo had my head reeling, heart racing and tears flowing.
The fire had already been extinguished, but the smoke was still lingering.
As I waited to enter the house, my neighbor AJ was at my side.
She was there for support and to let me know that Lulu and Posie, my husky, we safe at her house. Dearest AJ, her kids are allergic, but she took my pets to her house to keep them safe until I arrived, otherwise they would have gone to animal control until I could claim them.
My wee baby Lulu looks so helpless.
I am eternally grateful to the fire fighter who saved her.
The house was brick on the outside so it looked relatively fine, but when I walked inside, the formerly robin egg blue walls were charred black.
I can`t bring myself to post too many pictures from the fire.
They still hit a nerve and make my heart ache.
The smell was awful and being the middle of January, it was freezing cold.
The floor was soaked from the fire hoses.
All of the windows were busted with glass and charred debris was all over the floor.
There were workers already starting to board up the house.
Almost everything from the life I had built post divorce for my daughter and I was gone.
It was about 2 weeks after Christmas, I was almost done taking down the tree and decorations.
(The cats thought the Christmas tree was there as entertainment just for them, so I leave the tree up a bit longer. You know, shiny dangling things perched on various levels – to them it is one giant cat toy!)
The tree was melted, branches stuck together. The heirloom ornaments from my childhood and the ones I had gathered for my daughter were all gone.
I cannot bear to look at those pictures again, so I will not be adding them to this post.
Out of sight, out of mind.
The kitchen was the most damaged room.
The fire started in the kitchen, so the fire department had to pull all the drywall down from the ceiling. They were ripped apart to make sure there was nothing smoldering inside.
You can see the can lights dangling from the ceiling, the piles of charred drywall, kitchen cabinets and their unrecognizable contents piled on the floor.
The wood cabinets were completely gone in some spots. Contents of the cabinets were either melted globs sticking to what was left of the kitchen, strewn in piles of ash or strewn all over the floor.
Something I would have never realized it that the majority of the damage doesn’t come from the flames, but the smoke.
The smoke crept into every nook and cranny of the house.
Our clothes were stained and ashen from the smoke.
Laptops and iPads were soaked from the fire hoses and destroyed.
My bedroom curtains were cut in half when the firefighters were breaking windows on the second floor.
That was just the beginning of the story.
So now what happens?
How can you be prepared just in case a fire (or other natural disaster) befalls you?
Insurance is a must
The first step to prepare is to have insurance.
Rent or home owner, insurance is a must.
Even if you can only afford a smaller policy, something is better than nothing.
Renters insurance can be as reasonable as $5 a month.
A renters insurance policy is a bit different from a homeowners policy.
A renters policy usually has a set amount that covers your belonging, temporary lodging and rental furnishings.
There are many options for you when it comes to insurance, no matter where you live.
For example, Lemonade has reasonable pricing for renters insurance, but they also offer homeowners insurance and pet insurance.
Have an escape plan
We were fortunate that the fire happened while no one was home, but everyone should be prepared with a plan to exit their home in case of fire.
- Make sure second floor bedrooms have a way out. These ladders are easily secured and provide a safe escape route.
- Review the plan with the family often.
- Keep spare leashes, harnesses or collars for pets in the car.
- Label windows to let first responders know how many pets are in the home. [Family out first, unless the pet is close by to grab.]
Make sure you have fire extinguishers in your home
A fire extinguisher can help put out a small kitchen fire, but it can also help keep flames at bay long enough for your family to escape.
Here are a few good ones to have at the ready.
Protect your valuables and important documents.
Purchase a fire safe, or better yet keep important documents such as passports, birth certificate and other legal documents in a safe deposit box.
Family photos are important, too. These days most photos are taken on cell phones.
However, the priceless photos of your grandparents and favorite uncle won’t be so easily replaced. Scan photos and store them on the cloud.
If you have Office 365, it comes with 1TB of storage.
Then there is Amazon.com. Did you know that if you have an Amazon Prime account that you get 1 TB of photo storage INLCUDED. There is a limit for video, but it is only $20/year to add 1 TB of video for upload.
Completely worth it, if you ask me.
As for those old photos and documents, you need to get those scanned.
You can purchase a photo scanner like
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Or use a company that specializes in scanning family photos.
Family videos, movies, dvd’s, your wedding video, etc.
You can store copies on the Amazon cloud, Office 365 or other cloud storage.
Knowing that your irreplaceable photos are safe, should a disaster occur, can give you a little peace of mind.
What about after the fire?
Yes, breathe. It will be a shock and overwhelming. Remember to breathe.
Emotions are running high, adrenaline is flowing and your heart is broken.
It may seem small, but breathing will help you get thru what is coming next.
Contact your insurance company right away to start your claim.
Your insurance company will get the process started and be there to help guide you and process your claim.
Call for backup
Yes, call for back up.
A house fire is shocking.
If you have friends or family members to call for support, CALL THEM.
I called a dear friend, hysterical. She dropped everything and rushed over.
She held my hand as I cried and I walked her thru the house, assessing the loss.
Side story, the dear friend has been like a mother to me.
She had just put her condo on the market, with her first showing the next morning. Instead of worrying about the showing, she even offered [well, demanded] to have me stay with her until we could find temporary living arrangements.
Now, when I say we, I mean my dog who still smelled of the fire, my completely traumatized cat and me.
I am still grateful for the unconditional love and support of my dear friend, because I couldn’t have gotten thru the chaos of the fire without her support.
I didn’t have a change of clothes, a hairbrush, shampoo or even a toothbrush, because everything was gone.
She helped me stay focused, take one step and a time and remember what is important…
That we were safe.
Thankfully, my daughter was able to stay at her dad’s for a week, which was helpful.
She had clothes at her dad’s house, a toothbrush, toiletries, too.
My love was safe, that is what was most important.
Knowing that she was somewhere safe while I dealt with the aftermath of the fire, was one less thing to worry about.
Back to the aftermath of a house fire…
PPE aka Personal Protective Equipment
PLEASE wear a mask when you go in the house after a fire.
Someone said to me “oh, it smells just like a camp fire.”
It does NOT.
From someone who had to spend hours in a house post house fire, no, most house fires do not smell like a camp fire.
The plastic from the TV, your appliances, all the chemicals that burned converge into a toxic smell that will haunt you.
I remember when I went to the real estate office to sign a lease on the temporary home, the receptionist commented that something smelled like a BBQ.
A bit embarrassed, I had to tell her that the smell was me, I had just come from working on inventory at the house and did not get the opportunity to change my clothes.
The breathing in those chemicals and toxins smell is also hazardous to your health.
Please wear a mask every time you enter the house.
Also, don`t forget gloves. You will need different gloves depending on what you are doing.
If you are sifting thru debris, wear protective work glove.
There will be broken glass, debris, nails and other sharp object that will be hard to see.
If you are identifying smoke/water damage clothes protective surgical gloves will help.
Your skin is the biggest organ on your body and it is also porous.
Wearing gloves will keep you safe.
Do not let anyone else in the house without going thru your insurance company.
This seems like a strange thing, but do NOT let anyone in your house other than your family or support people without going thru your insurance company.
Well, aside from the first responders, such as the police and fire department, of course.
It is important to be in constant contact with your insurance company, they will make sure you know who is supposed to be there or provide you with contacts of approved vendors.
As for non authorized people trying to get in the house, or around the house, having people that you trust with you can help with this.
There are unscrupulous people who know this and want to take advantage.
You need support because your head will be racing thru so many things, it is a bit hard to think straight.
People listen to police scanners, then rush to the scene.
Such as the companies that board up the houses after a fire.
Pay attention to this one:
Crews will show up and start boarding up the house and hand YOU the bill.
They don’t ask for permission.
You did not hire them, and neither did your insurance company!
Since they did not coordinate with the insurance company, you could be responsible for the bill or prepared to fight why you should not have to pay the bill.
Ugh, this is just one more headache that no one needs to deal with.
Be careful with anyone that tries to come on the property.
There are also “insurance adjusters” but ones NOT sent by your insurance company.
People won’t even explain why they are at the house, but will pummel you with questions while trying to destract you and search for valuables to pocket.
Do not let anyone near the house unless they are first cleared by your insurance company.
Gather your valuables
Important documents should be stored online, but things like passports, heirloom jewelry, etc. can be stolen or used to steal your identity.
If you can get access to them, make sure they are safe and secure.
Pay close attention to the reclamation company
Unfortunately, I know several people who have had to deal with reclamation companies after a house fire.
The main job of the reclamation company is to inventory and identify everything they can from your house.
You need to make sure that they stay within the boundaries of your policy.
They are there to get the job done quickly.
A reclamation company won’t know what things have sentimental value to you.
The determination of what is valuable to you is your decision.
You can`t determine replacement value, but sentimental value is determined by you.
For example, they grabbed the laundry that was in the washing machine and took it to be professionally laundered, but started inventorying and tossing clothes from my bedroom in the trash.
The clothes in the washer happened to have been my painting/work clothes. I was charged $15 per t-shirt for them to clean my painting shirt.
Think about that.
For some reason they thought the work clothes should be cleaned and salvaged but my every day clothing that was smoke damaged in our bedrooms was being inventoried and tossed in the dumpster in lieu of trying to save it.
I had to step in and make sure they were making decisions based on my needs and wants, not theirs.
OK, breathe. [This picture is still for me hard to look at.]
If you look in my charred China cabinet, you can see the blackened dishes.
Could you even tell that there were dishes in there?
Those dishes were my grandmother’s China and are very special to me.
The reclamation company tried to throw them away.
Well, I rescued them.
I took them back to the temporary home, put them in a 5 gallon bucket filled with hot water and soaked them in OxiClean.
After a bit of scrubbing, they came out clean. I was able to save the majority of the set.
It isn’t a fancy, expensive set of china, but they were a weeding gift from my grandmother.
My grandparents were married during the Great Depression.
No fancy white dress, just a blue suit at the court house.
I am not sure how my grandmother received the set, but I am grateful that it was saved to be used for future family meals.
Another item that would seem menial to most people but was important to me was this Snow White and Dopey salt and pepper shaker set.
When I was married, decades ago, my ex and I spent a couple days of our honeymoon at Disney world.
I fell in love with a salt and pepper shaker set because Dopey looked a little like my grandpa, who had passed away years ago.
I brought the set home as a gift for my grandma.
We would tease each other over who was Snow White.
She said it was her kissing grandpa’s head.
No, I was Snow White kissing his head.
That memory still makes me smile.
Well, when my grandma passed away, they came back to me.
They sat atop that charred China cabinet that housed grandma’s China.
In the aftermath of the fire, I found Snow White in the ash and crumbling drywall, but couldn’t find Dopey.
The guys were cleaning up piles of debris, and I begged them with tears streaming down my face to please find Dopey. They needed to be together.
Well those big burly guys gingerly sifted for 45 minutes thru charred wood, piles of ash and we eventually found him.
A little worse for wear, but Snow White and Dopey were together again.
I cleaned them up, and yes I still have them.
The lesson in those stories is to pay close attention to the inventory process and make certain that you save, if possible, what is important to you.
The inventory process is a very humbling experience
Well, the inventory process is humbling and a bit humiliating process.
Photos are taken of EVERY ITEM IN YOUR HOME.
Not just clothes, the labels on your clothes.
Imagine someone taking photos of your bras, your panties, every pair of shoes, bedding, sheets, towels, linens…
Then you have to justify the worth of every identifiable item in your home.
Try to remember how long you owned it so that the item can be depreciated.
A black pair of pants is not a black pair of pants for a post fireinventory.
We’re your pair of leggings from Target or Lululemon? Are the black dress pants from Walmart or Chanel?
There is a huge difference in what you will get reimbursed for you closet full of clothes.
Oh, then you have to remember everything that was in the kitchen cabinets that are now gone because the fire destroyed them.
How many boxes of pasta were left? Bag of sugar? Granola bars? Pots, cookie sheets, storage containers.
The door to the fridge is melted shut, so you need to remember all the condiments, every item in the fridge. How many bottles of kombucha?
Oh, and your wine collection? Do you remember every bottle of wine you collected?
Why are the details important?
Because everything you own that is inventoried will have a dollar value assigned.
Then it will be depreciated based on how long you own it.
If it seems daunting, believe me, it is.
People do not profit from their insurance when they wave been a victim of a home fire, or other disaster. You get a small portion of what you paid for it.
You may be able to have “replacement ” insurance for big ticket items like TV’s, laptops, electronics, so check your policy.
The difference could be huge.
To help prepare yourself is to occasionally take inventory photos of valuable items.
Video helps, too.
Don’t forget to save the images to your cloud storage.
Photos from prior events help.
For example, if your sofa is unidentifiable after the fire, how do you prove to the insurance company what the style/brand/color was?
Those Christmas photos that you had previously backed up to the cloud may have photos of everyone sitting on the sofa.
OK, enough about the fire.
Hopefully you have enough information to help you prepare a bit should you ever have a home fire, but I will pray you do not have to go thru it.
The fire was a big shock, it was an ending.
You may not realize it at first, but it is all just STUFF.
It will hit you one day.
Silly things like a Dopey and Snow White salt and pepper shaker will be worth more to you that you would have thought.
The fire was also a beginning.
A clean slate.
About a week after the fire, we settled in to a short term rental.
I felt so blessed to be able to find a house close to my daughter`s school, so that she could try to get back to a normal routine.
Posie and Lulu enjoyed a moment of peace and snuggled up tight to me, taking a moment to breathe.
As for the house, once our salvageable belongings were removed from the house, I took my daughter back one last time.
I had an idea, a way to get some of the frustration and sadness from the fire out of our systems.
Walking in the house was an assault on the senses that made my heart heavy.
Most of the house was so dark, because all of the windows had been boarded over when the fire department broken all the windows.
It was cold, too.
This particular January had been cruel, cold and snowy.
There was a blizzard that had dumped several feet of snow on Chicagoland, like we hadn’t seen for decades.
Thankfully, the back door window had not been broken and let in plenty of light.
I had scavenged thru the piles of ashen pieces of our life and sorted ceramic cups, plates and a few bowls in to a pile.
We walked to the room at the back of the house.
It was an add on, with exposed brick, the perfect backdrop.
I turned to my darling daughter and said “pick up a cup, bowl, what ever you want and chuck it as hard as you can at the brick wall.”
“What, mom? I can’t!”
“Yes you can, baby. It won’t hurt the house. The dishes will be thrown away anyway with the rest of the debris clean up” and I grabbed a plate and threw it at the wall and we watched as it crashed into pieces.
“Get it out, get mad, get sad, what ever you want, just let it out”
She was still hesitant, so I grabbed a bowl and threw it as hard as I could.
CRASH against the brick wall, it was SO cathartic.
She side eyed me, grabbed a cup from the pile and flung it against the brick wall, it crashed into pieces and released some of the sadness.
Then a bowl, and another crash.
When we finished with the pile, we felt a bit lighter.
As we were leaving, we shed a few tears and as I gave her a hug I told her, “before we go, we have to say thank you to the house.”
She looked at me like I was off my rocker.
We need to say goodbye and thank you to the house.
To be thankful, we weren’t home at the time of the fire.
My bedroom was directly above the kitchen. I shudder to think what would have happened.
To be thankful that two of our pets survived, even though my heart still aches for the little fluffy love that we lost, Boo.
To be thankful for all the good memories in the house.
As I locked the front door for the last time, I asked her to leave the bad memories in the house and carry the good ones with us.
The most important thing is that I was able to hug her and start new, and for that, I was oh so very thankful.
Not everyone is that blessed.