I will be the first to admit that I have a fear of fire. I suppose that it came about from a time when I could not have been more than about four years old. One morning we heard the sounds of a fire truck and an ambulance racing down our street while we were eating breakfast. My mother took my baby brother out of his crib and grabbed my hand as she rushed outside to see what was happening. A crowd had gathered in front of a house halfway down the block. Nobody said a word as they stood staring at the flames and smoke coming from the roof of the abode. It was obvious even to a small child like me that the house would be a total loss, but the fire fighters fought the blaze until it was under control. Then they performed the grim task of checking to see if anyone had been inside. We all knew that an old man lived alone there and some of the neighbors began whispering that they hoped he had been gone when the fire started.
After a few minutes a fireman motioned to the drivers of the ambulance who wheeled a gurney over the rubble and through what had once been the front door. When they returned outside there was a form underneath a sheet. People looked at one another and began to cry because they understood that the man had died. My mother attempted to gently explain to me what was taking place and I remember feeling a sense of terror at the very thought of ever having something like that happen to me or anyone that I knew, but I said nothing. I simply internalized my horror.
Since that time I’ve made a point of regularly checking my smoke detectors and keeping fire blankets and fire extinguishers at the ready. I held drills with my children so that they would know what to do if a fire ever broke out inside our home. I even purchased a ladder for the second story of my home that I keep under a table next to the guest bedroom. It attaches to the window sill so that if the stairway is blocked there will be a way out into the safety of the front yard.
When I was still a teenager an older cousin of mine was smoking a cigarette in his bed after a particularly long and tiring day of work. Sadly he fell asleep as he lay relaxing with that burning ember between his fingers. As it fell from his grip it set his mattress on fire. We do not know whether or not he woke up to realize what was happening, only that he died.
My daughter was so well versed in emergency procedures that she was ready when a fire broke out in her Chicago apartment building. She heard the alarms and saw the smoke gathering in the hallway. She awakened her husband and the two of them quickly pounded on the doors of the other residents. They escaped with only their dog and stood in their pajamas and bare feet as they watched the flames consuming their worldly goods. They were later credited with being heroes for alerting the others who might have otherwise slept through the frightening event. The experience has vividly stayed in their memories for close to eighteen years. Things do not mean a great deal to them anymore. They profoundly value life over possessions.
A few years later my aunt was decorating for Christmas when a fire broke out at her home. She and my uncle grabbed a few family treasures before it became apparent that it was unsafe to be inside the house. They stood in the front yard that should have been decked out in holiday finery watching a lifetime of memories burn to the ground. It was heartbreaking for everyone who knew them because they were rapidly approaching their nineties and it seemed cruel for something so horrid to happen to them.
I was recently asked what I would rescue if my house caught on fire. While I have many treasures that I would hate to lose, my automatic response was that I would grab my husband and get out as quickly as possible. I cannot even imagine risking either of our lives for some object. While there are heirlooms in our rooms that are priceless in our minds, none of them would be of any importance if either of us were to be severely injured or lose our lives. We have fire insurance to replace the house and any necessities for living that we might need. Our important papers are backed up in the Cloud.
I thought about my aversion to fire during this past summer and fall. So many people lost their homes with everything inside due to wildfires in the west. I felt such great sorrow for them and hoped each day that none of them had lost loved ones. I thought of the firefighters who worked under such dangerous conditions and the risks they took to stop the spread of the flames. I was as mesmerized by the accounts and the images of what was happening as I had been as that four year old child.
I suppose that what I value most when there is a fire or a storm or even a deadly virus is life. This year of 2020 has reminded me again and again what my treasures really are, and none of them are things. That little old man taught me long ago how horrible it is when even one person dies in such a terrible way. I did not really know him but I suppose that I have mourned his passing many times when I have thought of him. I wish to this very day that somehow he had been pulled from that fire before it was too late. Every person is irreplaceable. For now our focus should be on keeping as many as possible safe.