Fire – a Short, Non-fiction Essay

Author’s note: Something happened last week that stopped the rhythm of life as I knew it. I found solace and meaning by writing my way through it. I hope in some small way, it helps someone to read this. I took no photos; for two reasons. It was too horrific to record other than with words and mysteriously, my camera obliged by refusing to work.

How does something so deathly hot turn life so bitter cold? We are all snuggled up tonight. Skeedles and Alice curl against each other at the end of the bed. A rare posture. I am chilled to my core, huddled under down comforters with a hot water bottle at my back. It has been 28 hours of living on adrenalin, hot tea, very little sleep.

I rounded the corner to head home yesterday in downtown Peterborough. Sirens honked and drivers parted as the fire trucks roared by. I followed them as they streamed up the road over Temple Mountain. My first thought was of my grandfather, a former chief of the fire department riding one of the tanker trucks with lights blaring. When they passed the turn to my side of the mountain, I breathed a sigh of relief as I put on my blinker and turned toward home.

There is something surreal about people in a crisis. One is reminded of the best and the worst of humanity.

At the final turn before my road I was stopped by the police. Beyond the officer was a scene of controlled chaos; tanker trucks, ambulances, and dozens of folks jumping from their cars pulling on protective gear. “You’ve got to go around, we have a house fire and the road’s closed.”

My house?!?! Is my house on fire?”

“It’s this first house.”

“Oh my god! They have horses. They have goats!”

“The fire crew cut the fence and chased them into the woods. We have to focus on the fire. If you can find them and keep them from coming back that would be a help.”

I parked and ran down the road. My house was the third driveway. Trucks choked the street, massive hoses snaked to a pop-up pool the tankers were filling, and a rescue vehicle was halfway up my drive. First to the house. Get halters and ropes. Call someone. I  knew where the daughter, Celia, worked . Google the number, fingers shaking, thoughts cascading too fast to follow. Be calm, be kind, deliver the news. She screamed and the phone clattered to the floor on the other end.

Every person who crossed my path for the next 8 hours was intent on a task. A call to the farm two miles down the road where my horse lives. A trailer is allowed through and we corralled the three horses. Celia skidded to a stop as we were loading them into the trailer. She was packed into the truck and sent back down the road to the farm. No one should have to witness what the firemen were uncovering. Wilson and I headed back to the edge of the woods, peering through the smoke and flames. Seven towns sent their best. Seven communities put out the call and volunteers of every skill grimly worked to battle the inferno. Temple’s Chief called to us. There is a goat alive. We can come around the perimeter to get it. As we worked through the brush and broken fencing, a woman in full flame gear handed me a plastic bucket. Five young chicks gazed up with bleary eyes. Wilson scooped up a blackened goat and we worked back as the building gave out a load crack and firefighters scattered.

We are huddled together because the acrid smell of scorched hair is fading from the house. The river of people has dried up and the atmosphere is still. Alice went from being on high alert at every new arrival, to finding a world of possible sources for bites of pizza. Skeedles insisted on being out all night. The woods were full of flashlights as neighbors combed the area for more goats. The total count was 19, our little rescued doe was given oxygen administered by two women from a rescue unit from two towns away. They carry pet-sized masks for just such an emergency and were seated on my front step with the owner. My favorite veterinarian answered the phone and said, “I’m ten minutes away. make sure she gets oxygen!” done.

Amid the sea of kind, calm humans I recognized the antithesis. One man with a clipboard was attempting to question the knot of neighbors gathered on the periphery. Another lurked along the edges snapping photos. The vultures had arrived. Aside from the media, attempting to record the horror, representatives from cleaning companies and insurance firms were hovering. The worst of humanity.

Just before dark, a group was organized to go back to the house to check for the hens. As expected, they had been outside and had fled but returned at dusk to roost, calmly picking through the charred remains. Wilson had the original bucket of chicks and several smaller ones from the basement where fire personnel found them under heat lamps. These six hens were carried to the farm next door. Three horses, 8 chicks, six hens and one goat situated. Four humans in need of beds at the very least. Baskets of clothes and pizza appeared. C and her two daughters had only the clothes they dressed in a lifetime ago in the morning.

The local Red Cross is a wondrous organization. All volunteers again. First on the scene, (which had become my living room complete with the singed but surviving goat) was a retired gentleman who was there to assess the situation and immediate needs. I watched as he sat back with his tea and allowed the friends and neighbors who crowded in to offer support. It was a delicate balance to determine key facts like insurance help, number is emergency care bags, and the gender/age/mental state of the victims. As the crowd began to thin, a large Recreational Vehicle  parked across the end of my driveway, clearly emblazoned with the red cross. It was time to deal with immediate matters. Calmly, a woman walked C, Celia and Bella through a checklist; medications, temporary housing, insurance, mental health support.

At 5am this morning the house was finally silent.  C and her daughters had showered and collapsed into bed. I stood out on the back deck and listened. Wind through the pines answered. The birds were silent, the sky was starless. The air was still acrid with smoke and frost skimmed the lawn.

Today more immediate matters needed tending to. There was no sign of the missing goats and the fire chief had carefully reported they found eight bodies. The light of day brought yet another stark look at the destruction. C was intent on the grim task of retrieving her beloved goats from the rubble. All were accounted for and all were laid to rest with dignity. Each kind human took up their part and gave what they could. That in itself should warm my soul. But tonight we are all huddled down with a chill.

The sky is clear and cold; blanketed in stars as if all those little souls are shining down on the hole in our neighborhood.

Thursday.

The house has suffered from a parade of muddy boots and smells faintly smoky. I opened all the windows and took Alice for a walk. As we passed the scene of the fire it was evident where the smoky smell is coming from. The structure rekindled and a thick stream of dark smog flowed up from a hole in the battered roof. Insulation smolders for a long time. I called it in and within 10 minutes the sirens announced the trucks from a mile down the road.

The Temple fire department arrived first and were joined by New Ipswich and Peterborough. By the time the town of Greenfield’s representation clomped up the driveway in heavy gear, it was crowded and I began to feel guilty. Luke, a friend from town caught my eye. He motioned me to the bumper of the tanker truck where he was sitting.

“I probably shouldn’t have bothered everyone. It’s not flaming up or anything that bad.”

“We spent 3 hours wetting and turning all the hay that was stored in the garage. It’s dry now and you did the absolute right thing. It may seem like a lot of people but everyone is here because that’s what we do. Everyone has a special talent. See that gal over there? She has horses and goats. When animals are involved you want her there. Many hands make light work.”

Luke owns a foreign/exotic car repair shop. He took care of my Jaguars and Hanni’s Volvo.  Once, in his other role as a volunteer EMT, he “jump-started” me when I had a medical emergency. Everyone wears lots of hats here, and the majority are for volunteer occupations.

“Luke can you talk to the police chief about getting some drive-by coverage for the next few days? The “Lookie-loos” are making me crazy. I chased four car loads out of my driveway yesterday afternoon and it hasn’t even hit the local paper yet.”

“Now don’t let people get you down. It’s not so much the macabre that they come to see. There is something terrifyingly grounding about seeing the aftermath of a fire. There have been plenty of times when the “look-loos” as you call them reported a flare up that saved us from a much bigger problem.”  “But to answer your question, yes, I will ask him…”

It was mid-morning by the time I settled back at the computer. Though I’d been up at 5:30am, the day was slipping by and my mind felt like cotton candy. Minor case of post-stress and tiredness, I told myself.

C stopped by to use the bathroom. She and her girls had found a dresser drawer that was charred but intact. Nestled inside were childhood school art work and photos they thought were lost.

Small victories; memories unearthed and lessons on humanity learned.

 

 

 

15 thoughts on “Fire – a Short, Non-fiction Essay

  1. Beautifully told Martha, events like that highlight the best and worst of life and humanity, and it is a gift to be able to clearly see and describe it all when there is so much going on around you. It sounds like you all pitched in during their time of need. It must have been a shock, hope you can get some rest and take the time to recover. Glad you were able to find some positives, focus on those and you’ll find a few more. Take care. The world is a better place for volunteers and kind people like yourself.

    • Thank you Mark. I was just one of so many who stopped, put life on hold, and did what they could. Today is the third running of the Boston Marathon since the bombing. While there is no comparison, it still serves to remind us that people are basically good and will do whatever it takes to help each other…

  2. More proof, life can and does change in an instant. Despite the sadness of the loss of the animals, it’s fortunate they were the only casualties. I’m sure the family appreciates everything you and everyone else did in their time of crisis. I’m happy they found the drawer of mementos.

  3. I looked at the news photos online and they showed a terrible scene. Thank God you were there to help with the animals and keep them from getting lost. This is a tragedy.

    • Fire is the scariest, Aline. That is two neighbor’s houses in the 10 years I have lived here. We pay a dear price for living in the woods as there is no way to stop a raging inferno.

  4. I heard about this one but didn’t know it was so close to you. It sounds like it’s a good thing that it was. I’m glad you were able to really offer some much needed help. Quite often in such situations we find ourselves standing around feeling helpless and wishing there was something we could do.

  5. What a story! Even though a tragic situation I found myself excited about the thought of the rescue of the animals and the nurturing of your neighbors. Would that we all have such neighbors and would that we never need them in this way, The story transcends because it is written so beautifully.

    Mel

  6. What a terrible experience. I’m glad no people were hurt but how sad about the goats. For a moment I thought it was your house, as I’m sure you did when you were stopped on the road. A fire is a terrible thing and take a long time to get over.

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