I woke up fast on a dark early December morning to the merciless Santa Ana winds whipping our house, branches squeaking across the window panes, and echoey whistles banging against the shingles. I noticed my alarm clock light flashing on and off, on and off, which indicated that the power had gone off at some point during the night. This wasn’t unusual for winter in Southern California. But I an unnerving feeling niggled on my mind.
I walked to my mom and dad’s room and asked my mom for a battery-powered travel alarm so I could wake up for school on time the next day. The travel alarm said 4:30 a.m. The noisy winds had woken my parents up, too.
Then I heard my mom yelling that the house was on fire- she had seen the flames on the garage roof and smelled the smoke. She dialed 9-1-1 and hollered at the operator. “My house is on fire! I don’t care if we’re not in the city…my house is burning. We are in the city. Come now.”
(9-1-1 had coded our home as not being in the city of Upland, but we were in the city, just right on the border. Also the fire department was especially busy that night fighting Santa Ana wind-induced fires in the neighboring town of La Verne).
“Get out of the house, and take the dogs with you,” my mother instructed me and my brother Andrew. I put on a bra, my denim jacket, and my shoes. I grabbed our little terrier Blackie, and my brother took Oso, a big half-Doberman, half-German Shepard out of the house. Oso tried to run back in the house. By now flames licked around the house like mocking snakes.
We waited by the wall at the edge of our yard. Ever since I was little my mom had said that this would be our meeting spot in case of emergency. Now we were thick in the middle of a big emergency.
“Take the dogs to the Gillingwators’ house and tell them our house is on fire,” my mom instructed. I turned like a sobbing zombie with Blackie in my arms.
Andrew told me to shut up. Even though he was just a ninth grader, he was able to remain calmer than I was. On the way over and up the hill to their home, I turned around to see that sky was orange fringed with blackness. The greedy flames devoured our house.
We rang the Gillingwators’ doorbell. Turns out that they were awake, and couldn’t sleep either.
I decided to walk back to our burning home in hopes that the fire would be slowing down. When I walked back to the house, fire trucks were lined up in front of our home and a crowd had gathered. The firemen looked like tiny ants flailing strings with their fire hoses spraying the house. The Goliath flames seemed unstoppable.
I found my dad, and he just held me in his arms. We watched as the fire gobbled the attic, the music room, and devoured the entire second story. There was nothing we could do- we were completely powerless.
By daybreak the firefighters had stopped the fire- all that remained was a wet tinder mess. The entire attic and most of the second floor was gone. The first floor and basement were totally smoke and water damaged.
I stood with my mother and a fireman in the skeleton of what used to be my bedroom- my boring Algebra 2 book had survived, but all my clothes had vaporized into an ashen mess. I had even left my wallet laying on the floor in my haste to escape.
“If you had been in here just thirty minutes longer you would have died of smoke inhalation,” the fireman said. “You wouldn’t have burned to death; you would have just died from breathing in the smoke.”
It hit me a few years ago that because I survived this fire, since I was spared, I MUST have a purpose– I have to help people, and I can’t just mope around on the couch.
Whenever I start to throw a pity party for myself, get down in the dumps, I remember that I almost died at sixteen. People die in house fires all the time- 2,600 people a year- that’s about 7 people A DAY, and some 12,600 are injured.
Why was I spared? The fact that I survived that fire also reminds me to focus on today, to be in the present, and to do the footwork to align with the way that God has paved for me. What is my purpose today? How can I help others today? Will sitting here feeling sorry for myself do anything for the world?
I am forever thankful to the firefighters who fought hard to save what they could of our home and who put their lives on the line every day to save others.
P.P.S. The fire started when telephone lines rubbed against the branches of a stately Eucalyptus tree across the street from our home, creating sparks. The sparks then flew onto the eighty-two year old cedar shingles of our garage and the flames jumped to our home within the matter of a couple hours. Apparently someone had called 9-1-1 at 2:30 AM, but the dispatcher had insisted that our home was not in the city. Another woman called 3:30 AM, and was told the same thing.
If 9-1-1 had sent the fire department at those times, perhaps our family home could have been saved. I can’t dwell on that because that isn’t what happened.
The past is what it is, and I am grateful to be alive today. What experiences have you had that remind you of your purpose?