Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Following a fire: what happens next?

My route to work took me past a house that has sat dark more than a week.

There’s a small pile in the driveway of some burnt materials such as drywall, and a free community newspaper that was tossed there last weekend remains still in its plastic wrapper.

The house remains devoid of life, silent.

Looking oddly out of place, a large blue tarp is draped on part of the house’s back wall. The tarp covers a hole made by firefighters sawing through the house siding to tackle a fire that started one evening less than two weeks ago.

That evening, there had been no towering flames, just smoke that billowed out the front and back of the house through any open doors or holes. Sparks had flown at one point when a firefighter had to climb a ladder and snip the power lines to the house. The power company had not yet arrived to help out; that would be about another half hour or so.

The screaming sirens that evening, from several fire engines and police cars, attracted a few neighbors to wander occasionally over to settle their curiosity. On a chilly night, most people didn’t stay long. A couple teenaged brothers from down the block watched for a while, they decided to go back to their suppers grown cold. A woman out for an evening walk with her elderly mother gingerly crossed the street to ask what was going on, then decided to return back to their warm home.

The firefighters toiled at their jobs. They kept floodlights on the house from as many sides as possible. Used chainsaws to cut into a house. Unrolled water hoses to attach to fire hydrants. Entered the house where they could, climbed ladders to investigate more, drank water when possible as they coughed through the smoky conditions.

Families that lived directly across the street from the affected house gathered on their lawns and sidewalks. They chatted to other neighbors from a few blocks around. They tried to guess the cause of the fire, share what they knew about who owned the house and what was its history.

Near the house, a woman appeared and carried a young child snuggled close to her. Walking among the fire engines, she paused to stop and talk to the firefighters and other emergency services staff.

Spotting the small crowd gathered across the road, she gathered her courage — and walked over.

“Hi,” she said. “I’m your new neighbor. I just moved in today. And that,” she motioned towards the house, “is my place.”

Immediately she faced many questions, but also received more than that: There was a reassuring pat on her shoulder, offers to help in any way.

The woman’s family, with young children, had moved in that day to rent the house. They had switched on the power, and her spouse has started the washer to do laundry. Seconds later there was a loud POP sound — they hurried back to the laundry room and found flames shooting out of the electrical box, already licking away at the wall above the box.

They rushed out with their kids, phoned 9-1-1, and as fire alarms screeched in the house, the family helplessly realized all their worldly possessions sat in boxes in that smoky house. They had barely any time to even start unpacking that day.

A neighbor next door gave them shelter as fire engines within minutes had raced to contain the fire. Family within town also helped what they could.

“Welcome to the neighborhood,” the neighbors told the mother, who was trying to encourage her sleepy, shy child to say hi to the strangers. Eventually, the mother went over to the ambulance and sat in there for a while away from the cold.

Promising to stay in touch, the neighbors drifted away in the night.

Days later, the house sits cold, dark, blue tarp in the back. All life seems to have vanished from the house and streets around.

* * * *
How a city reacts to a local fire is different than in rural areas.

Sirens and smoke attract the curious, but in this age of seeing spectacular fires on television or on newspaper pages, we have less patience for boring tragedies that happen in our cities.

While a tragedy still impacts a family greatly, a small fire is soon ignored or forgotten. It might not even make the local city newspaper, or if it does, it’s merely a line or two in a police report released a day or two later. Time, place, short explanation of cause if known, that’s about it.

We are attracted to and are fascinated by larger disasters, especially if it happens to someone else. Highway accidents can draw our attention, but unfortunately it’s usually if it’s a fatality, or if it impacts us in some way (we witness the accident, drive by it, or are delayed in our travels because of it.)

Small town newspapers in rural communities go beyond reporting even the smaller accidents and fires — they often say what happened to the families involved, and how people can help out. Rural communities have not become that hardened yet to what happens to neighbors, peers or even strangers who have had fires, accidents or other misfortunes. Usually if there are accidents, no matter how serious, people in the community want to find out what and where it happened, if everyone was okay.

If there are fires, often people in rural communities try to pitch in a hand to help, from being volunteer firefighters, to offering shelter, meals, babysitting or anything else needed to help those affected. They raise money to help out. They want people to know they’re not alone.

Strangers don’t remain strangers for long, and in a time of tragedy, that’s exactly the support a rural community and families need to survive.

In rural communities, a small fire such as that one here recently, would spark long-term warm friendships.

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