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Up in Flames

Fire consumed her house in just 12 minutes, and from the smoke and ash she learned what matters most

January 14, 2007|Helen Storey | 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.

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