Rising from the Ashes: Lessons I Learned 19 Years Ago to Rebound After a Housefire

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Rising from the Ashes

Please note that I am only posting this story because I have been asked to by several friends who are living the wildfire nightmare in California.  This is not to compare my story with theirs as the details are very different, but in the hope that my story – especially the what to do after — helps someone affected in some capacity.  The photos will be mismatched as they are from photo albums and are all sizes (and some are in better shape than others).

Rising from the Ashes
Nineteen years ago a fire raged through our condo displacing eight families.

Rising from the Ashes

Pug the One Eyed Adopted Pug Dog Who Survived The Fire 

The pounding on the front door at 4:30 a.m. was loud and frantic.  I remember rolling over and saying to my husband, “this better be good.”  Suddenly the choke of the smoke hit me.  I was immediately awake — our condo was on fire.  We went into automatic mental checklist mode.  Get dressed.  Get out.  Grab animals.  Nothing pragmatic or sentimental entered that thought process.  Ironically, two nights before, we had unplugged our fire alarm.  The batteries were low so it was beeping every few minutes and getting very annoying.  We planned to purchase some batteries over the weekend figuring it was no big deal.  Our early rising neighbor, who woke us up with the pounding, was the alarm that easily saved our lives.

As we went down the stairs, you could feel the heat from our neighbor’s place coming through the walls.  If you had asked me then, even with the fire raging before me, if the condo was really going to burn to the ground, I would have never, ever said yes.  Even in the midst of the inferno, you still make irrational decisions not thinking it will really ever happen.  Our neighbor, who accidentally started the fire, had to use a chair to break a window to escape.  My husband ran back in to get him a pair of shorts as he was standing outside in nothing but his underwear.  Now, my husband did not get his new shorts, just bought the weekend prior, but instead dug down in the dresser for an older pair of shorts.  The new shorts were left to burn.

As I sat there, just a few minutes later, watching the furor of nature consume what was once my home, I went back and forth between complete breakdown and being awe inspired about the power of nature.  My most humbling moment still to this day was walking up to that Red Cross truck because all I had to my name was my purse (thank god John thought to grab it), a grubby T-shirt, a pair of underwear and nasty shorts.  No toothbrush, no contacts, no toiletries, no bra, no shoes.  There were no shoes in my size at the Red Cross truck.  For a day, I walked around in men’s size 9 cleats.  There is no vanity in a fire.  There are however, television cameras everywhere wanting to ask a myriad of stupid questions and to capture your grief.  Avoid them.  The last thing you want to become is the face of misery.

All day a string of friends (and strangers) came to offer their love, support and the opening of their homes. Communities can be amazing.  I am a very proud person and I struggled with taking their kind offers.  I quickly learned to swallow my pride.  I also have seen a lot of bashing of the Red Cross on earlier forums.  I can tell you from personal experience that they were a lifesaver for me.  They offered us hotel vouchers, but we had amazing friends that told us that their home was open to us and then followed that up with letting us stay for months while we got on our feet.  I cannot tell you how much that ability to have a home base, some normality, much wine and laughter helped during a time of so much uncertainty and sadness.

First, you must understand that you will never have the same version of normal again.  It’s been 19 years and I have yet to light a fire.  I am just now at the point where I can light candles in my house.  That is okay.  It’s just your new reality.

Let’s start with the steps you need to take to rebuild your residence once you are in a place where it is safe to do so:

Contact Your Insurance Agent ASAP

Contact your insurance company.  Ask what to do about the immediate needs of your home. Ask about money and vouchers to cover your temporary needs.  This includes pumping out water and covering doors, windows and other openings as well as food, clothing, shelter, etc.   Ask your insurance company what to do first.  Some companies may ask you to make a list of everything that was damaged by the fire.  They will ask you to describe these items in detail and say how much you paid for them.  This is important.  Think about this carefully.  Go room by room and visualize each drawer, cabinet, etc.  Your junk drawer is probably much more valuable than you think.  It’s hard, it’s painful.  You will cry.  It will take time.  The Internet will help you will value things. Do not undervalue things based on age.  You have to replace them at full market cost.   I have found this approach to be a smart one.  Someone recommended, after our fire, that we should have gone around our house and video taped every room, closet, draw, etc.  Wish we had received that advice before the fire.

If You Do Not Have Insurance

If you do not have insurance, your family and community might help you get back on your feet.  Crowdfunding is also an option.

Organizations that might help include:

American Red Cross.
Salvation Army.
Religious organizations.
Public agencies, such as the public health department.
Community groups.
State or municipal emergency services.
Nonprofit crisis-counseling centers.


Get in touch with your landlord or mortgage lender ASAP.  Contact your credit card company to report credit cards that were lost and request replacements.  Save your receipts for any money you spend.  The receipts may be needed later by the insurance company.  You will need the receipts to prove any losses claimed on your tax return.

Cleaning the Damage (if applicable)

There are companies that specialize in restoration.  Make sure insurance covers this.  Get estimates in writing and get your insurance to provide referenced companies.

Submitting Your Claims for Home and Personal Belongings

Talk with your insurance company about how to learn the value of your home and property.  This is an arduous process.  Talk to people that have been through the process.  I am happy to talk to any of you about the lessons that I learned.

The Important Documents You Need to Replace 

Driver’s license, auto registration.
Bankbooks (checking, savings, etc.).
Insurance policies.
Military discharge papers.
Birth, death and marriage certificates.
Divorce papers (if appropriate).
Social Security or Medicare cards.
Credit cards.
Titles to deeds.
Stocks and bonds.
Medical records.
Income tax records.
Citizenship papers.
Prepaid burial contract.
Animal registration papers.
Mortgage papers.

Sounds Cliché, But If You Had Money Laying Around (Now You Have to Prove This With Burnt Money)…

Try not to handle it.  If you have at least half the bill,  your Federal Reserve Bank will replace it.  Go to your nearest one or you can mail it to:

“Registered mail, return receipt requested” to:

Department of the Treasury Bureau of Engraving and Printing Of ce of Currency Standards
P.O. Box 37048
Washington, DC 20013

Damaged or melted coins may be taken to your regional Federal Reserve Bank or mailed by

“registered mail, return receipt requested” to:

Superintendent U.S. Mint P.O. Box 400 Philadelphia, PA 19105

To replace U.S. savings bonds that are destroyed or mutilated, get the Department of Treasury Form PD F-1048 (I) from your bank or at www.ustreas.gov and mail to:

Department of the Treasury Bureau of the Public Debt Savings Bonds Operations P.O. Box 1328

Parkersburg, WV 26106-1328

And now the personal stuff….

A few lessons here because personal is, well, personal and might be totally different for you….  Stuff is stuff.  And then it’s your stuff and it’s gone.  It’s a hard burden to bear.

Start with the shoes

I remember going to Northpark Mall, a Dallas shopper’s paradise, to try to replace my wardrobe.  Four hours went by and I remember meeting my husband with his full shopping bags.  I had nothing.  The process of knowing where to even start so overwhelmed me that I sat on a bench and just cried.  The cliché that every woman wants a new wardrobe was just false for me under the circumstances.  I started with Designer Shoe Warehouse and a bag of shoes and progressed one step at a time.  Then I started to rebuild.

The smoke smell will linger

As much as you try, you will not be able to get the smell of smoke out of your lungs for a long time.  If you have a place to go back to and they are able to save any of your stuff, it will linger in everything.  It just doesn’t go away.  As much as you want to save things, sometimes it is a blessing to have it declared a loss.

Dig through the dirt

We combed through our rubble.  It was a lot and you have to wait until the smoldering stops, which takes days.  But we found a few precious possessions intact.  One being our wedding album.  Amazingly, a portion of the second story floor collapsed on the coffee table where our wedding album was sitting and it was kind of sealed from the fire.   When all of your pictures, letters and special possessions are no longer, I cannot tell you what it meant to find that wedding album that could never be replaced.

Take the help

As Nike says.  Just do it.  Take the vouchers.  Take the bag of clothes.  Take the donations.  You are rebuilding your life.  Your way to give it back is to show gratitude.  Pay it forward. I promise you will never look at the world the same way again.

You will laugh.  You will cry

Both are okay.  Both are human.  Your perspective will be forever changed.


Keep your sense of humor

Approximately one month after the fire, we went to a Halloween party.  A friend of ours was an Associate Fire Chief in the Dallas Fire Department.  She lent us full fire gear.  Was it the right thing to do?  For us, absolutely….  Friends threw us a fire shower with the movie Backdraft in the background.  Was it twisted?  Absolutely.  Was it us?  Absolutely.  Did it help?  Absolutely.  And, it was a lot easier on our liver in the long run.


Do something daring. 

I had a Leadership Dallas retreat that my husband literally pushed me out the door to attend two days after the fire.  Part of our retreat included an obstacle course where we had the choice to climb a ladder up a very tall telephone pole and jump. Not everyone did it.  I did.

People are good

People are good.  People are very, very good.  It will take you a village to come back from this and you will.  Anything that I can personally do to help you as you bounce back from your new normal, please let me know.  #sonomastrong #napastrong #pasoroblesstrong #mendocinostrong

Sources include FEMA and several insurance companies.  To donate, you can text the word CAWILDFIRES to 90999 to make a $10 donation to the Red Cross.


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