Up in Flames

Helen Storey has written for Los Angeles magazine and Time Out. She is working on her first novel.

We walk into the lobby of Raffles L'Ermitage hotel and people stare. A few of them head for the door. We approach the front desk, and the receptionist greets us with a hesitant smile as she reaches for the button to summon security. Crazy people with dogs have gotten in. My husband pulls a credit card from his sodden wallet. Her smile softens. The people whose house burned down, she says.

We enter the room and stare at those people in the floor-to-ceiling mirror. They are filthy. Their eyes are glazed, their movements jagged and raw. Their feet are bare. One is carrying a wicker hamper, slightly scorched and overflowing with smoke-drenched treasures gathered in desperation. The people whose house burned down are accompanied by three black dogs, two of which are usually white.

We turn the bath water black several times and try to eat room-service food in hotel robes while fielding calls from concerned friends offering a place to stay. We are in shock but we don't know it. We need the sanctity of a hotel room with soundproof windows and sweet-smelling sheets. This was the one that allowed pets and could take us at the last minute. We still hear the sirens and the loud crackle of fire hungry for oxygen. The stench of smoke has permeated our skin. At least you are alive, our friends say. At least you got the dogs out. Did you save anything else?

What would you save if your house caught fire?

A question we have all asked ourselves, especially those of us living in California. As the Santa Ana winds blow, we are reminded of times past, when we watched a wavering orange wall make its way across mountain and canyon, listened to weathermen debating which way the currents might shift. Helicopters spill ocean water on trouble spots. Fire gobbles up homes as quickly as a pyro Pac-Man. Riverside, Malibu, Gaviota, New Cuyama. We remember the acrid smoke that stung our eyes. We plant more Red Apple, trim overhanging branches and buy fireproof boxes to fill with birth certificates, photographs and insurance policies. Sometimes we pack cars with heirlooms, necessity and sentiment. We park them so they are ready for a quick exit, and we hope it won't be us.

What would you take if you had time to think about it? What would you grab if you didn't? Will you leave when the sheriff's deputy insists? Or stay, hose at the ready? Will you panic? Will adrenaline render you calm and pragmatic or screaming hysterically into the street? There are occurrences in life that let us know in an instant who we are. Watching your home of 10 years go up in flames is one of them.

it wasn't a wildfire. We evacuated ourselves, and ours was the only home affected. We took nothing because we had no idea just how quickly fire can travel. Or how time, in contrast, moves so slowly when you are waiting for the fire department to arrive. Most of all, we learned that it is not what you take with you that matters in the end. What matters is how you react to all you have lost.

The house was built in 1926. It was a cottage, really. The Realtor had described it as a celebrity love nest. Anjelica Huston owned it while dating Jack Nicholson. Like her, as the Realtor also told us, it had good bones. Most of all it had charm. Stucco, wood siding and lots of trees. Eucalyptus, sycamore, jacaranda.

It was June, and the sticky purple flowers from that tree covered the road as I clicked the garage door open and squeezed my elderly Saab inside. Every inch was packed, ready for a yard sale the next morning. A neighbor and I had placed an ad in the L.A. Times classifieds. Saturday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. No early birds. Maybe calling it a moving sale was tempting fate. I watched the wooden door wobble shut and went inside the sleeping house.

It was late, past my usual bedtime, but I was not ready for bed. That alone was probably what saved us. I made some tea and lay on the sofa in the den. Was I reading? Was I watching TV? All I remember is the smell when I stood to turn off the lights. I moved to the window and peered out. Another house on fire, I thought. Two had burned down in the past few years, one just opposite. It's a very distinctive smell, smoke. As I moved away, I happened to look down, and that's when the alarm bell sounded. Not the smoke alarm missing its new batteries but the one inside me that connected the spiral of smoke I may have seen drifting from the garage with the smell that had drawn me to the window to begin with.

i shout down the hallway to my sleeping husband. I am still calm.

He is standing on the porch as I open the garage door and see the flames, encouraged by a new source of oxygen, leap higher from the front of my car. Faulty wiring, they would later determine. We leash up the dogs and stand on the street waiting for the fire department to arrive, waiting for the car to explode. If we'd known this rarely happens, we would have tried to extinguish the fire ourselves. Instead, we watch as the flames rise quickly to the roof, where a large wooden garage door sits ready and waiting to embrace them.

I am not so calm anymore. Where are they? What is taking so long? I see black smoke starting to seep into the house, through the same window I had looked out moments ago. I think of how bad everything will smell, and I run back in to close it. But as I approach, I feel the heat rising from the floor, see the flames creeping in, and turn back. I am on my knees and screaming now.

Where are they?

what would we have saved if we had known what was about to happen?

It took 12 minutes for the first engine to make its way up the hill. That's all it takes. Twelve minutes. The loud crack of flames advancing through the house, breaking windows, leaping up to catch the trees, heading for the house behind. There were no doors to stop it. We always loved that. One room flowed into another. From the den lined with books to the dining room lined with linen wallpaper to the cathedral-roofed living room with its exposed timbers nicely dried for 75 years.

Fire cares not about the first chair you ever bought and lovingly covered with fabric from your trip to India, the painting your deceased mother gave you for your 21st birthday, the photographs that document your lives, the new sheets you had just put on the bed. Fire gorges itself on it all, as your neighbors stand in clusters watching the show, grateful that it's not their house. They stand while ash falls gently as snow and pass around bottles of water. They talk of property values and summer plans. Someone gets too near and needs oxygen. Someone I've never met hugs me close. Tragedy shows us brevity. Has no favorites. Unites.

Firemen hack holes in the roof, and once the flames are drenched into submission, they hack up all that is left inside, searching for hidden embers. But first, before they stack all the blackened remains of your life into piles, in the garden and in the street, they ask you if there is anything they can try and find.

Next to our bed, I have left my engagement ring in a box. They find it. They crack the molten lump open with a hammer and out jumps the ring. They give me charred, but not completely ruined, photo albums they have found in a closet. They know what people want by now. Then they accompany us through what remains of our home. Watch out for the hoses, they say.

Everything is black, and wet. The fire chief tells us we were lucky that I happened to be awake as we follow him along the same path the flames had taken. We are not convinced. Then he shows us how we would have been trapped by two separate walls of fast-moving fire, and explains that long before that, we would have been lulled into unconsciousness by the fumes. Deadly fumes from a garage full of paint and rubber would have entered our sleeping nostrils and then our only hope would have been a neighbor. Someone happening by, with enough good sense and courage to pull us from our beds. We were lucky, but we don't feel it yet.

Four hours have passed, and when the last fire engine leaves, we stay. We lie on the deck and wait for morning to come. We wander through the blackened shell and tell each other it will be OK. We are the people whose house burned down. We are the people who have just realized we really don't care about material possessions, and we are grateful for all that means. We know it is not karma or luck, just life. We stand on the front porch as birds search in desperation for nests no longer there and the newspapers are flung onto the steps below, and we see how it is that life goes on. The handyman shows up to fix a light, the cleaner arrives and begins to cry. My husband drives her home. I call the friends we were supposed to have dinner with that night and tell them we can't come; our house burned down. They bring us food, and we all laugh when two girls in a truck show up for the yard sale we had advertised. I tell them to help themselves to anything they want. They drive off. Without irony, without humor, we would be lost.

In an unexplainable way, losing all you own is strangely liberating. Everything is gone, and all that remains is what matters most.

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