We’d run an errand, then gone out to dinner. We were out for maybe three hours, returning a little after 10pm. Our teen-age twins, eager to get home, ran up the steps from the driveway to our front door. “Fire! The house is on fire!” they called out. I ran up to see what was going on. Smoke was pouring out the front door.
My daughter ran in to get her small dog. She came out moments later with him in her arms. Then my son ran in. “Get out of the house! Get out of the house!” I screamed at him over and over again from the doorway. The smoke was too dense for me to go in, and it was crazy for him to do so. He finally came out, and we moved away from the house. I could hear my wife shouting “Fire! Call 911!” down below in the driveway.
Call 911. I pulled out my phone and…realized I never “dial” a phone number with it. If it’s a person, I tap their contact, anything else is looked up in Google maps. For a few panicked moments I swiped back forth, then forced myself to think: OK, Phone app. Dial Pad. 9-1-1. The phone lit up with an emergency display and the local emergency dispatch promptly answered (thank you E911).
The Sheriffs showed up almost immediately. The officer and I walked up to the front door, he verified smoke was indeed pouring out, and he said something in his walkie-talkie. A few moments later, and we heard the fire truck sirens in the distance. We walked downstairs to the driveway across the street, and the fire trucks rolled up.
Firemen in action are amazing to watch. The gleaming trucks look like they just rolled out of the showroom. The firemen have the same sort of practiced precision of a drill team or an acrobat troupe, but they’re operating in inherently chaotic situations. There was no shouting, no running. All of them knew exactly what to do and where to go. At one point my son noticed the wheels on the trucks were chocked. I’m sure the fire truck’s parking brakes are maintained to perfection, but why take chances?
My son and I waited in the driveway across the street; our house is up a rise on the other side of the trucks, so we couldn’t see much of what was going on. My wife, daughter and the dog waited in the car at the end of the street. Giant hoses were hooked up. A tarp was spread near where we stood, and large implements of forced entry placed on it: axes, picks, chainsaws. Fortunately they weren’t used.
After an anxious hour or so, we were asked to speak to the fire chief, who took down what we knew and our contact information. A while later, another fireman invited my son and I up to the house.
The fire had started in my office, just off the entryway. The power to that room was cut, so all I could see in the darkness was where the fireman shined their flashlights. The room was warm. They’d been able to put it out with just an extinguisher, instead of using the big hoses. The fire was on the floor near my desk and a cabinet. The fireman had carefully removed the drawers, then hauled the cabinet’s frame out. It was pretty badly burned. They found the melted remains of an old intercom, and suspected it as the cause. The actual burning had been confined to a small area. There were plenty of paper and books nearby, but fortunately none of them ignited. The fumes were overpowering, a combination of smoke and strong chemical smells. The firemen urged us to stay out of the house until the air was clear.
A total of three fire engines from two departments, the fire chief’s truck and the sheriffs had all crowded onto our small street. As the trucks packed up and pulled out, we re-grouped in the car. We clearly could not spend the night in our house.
Our family headed to a Safeway’s nearby to regroup. Sitting in the parking lot, I called the insurance company to report the claim, while my wife and daughter went into the store to pick up a few items. The insurance company told us a restoration crew would call us in the morning, and asked us to save hotel receipts. I left the task of finding a hotel to my son.
We discovered that finding a hotel late at night, on a weekday near Stanford University, is nearly impossible. As the heart of Silicon Valley, businessmen from all over the world constantly come for conferences, sales pitches, the university, etc. We finally found a place able to house us several miles away, but just for one night. Our neighbors across the street graciously offered to take our dog for the night. Scared and confused, he wasn’t a great houseguest. But that act of kindness made it possible for us to find a hotel at all.
Given the situation, we were still optimistic about the situation. The books, papers, cardboard boxes near the fire in my office had not ignited. We had insurance. It would probably be just a matter of airing out the house and cleaning up the smoke in my office.
Footnote: Leave running into burning buildings to properly equipped professionals. Both of our kids suffered temporary effects of smoke inhalation from the brief time they spent in the house during the fire.