I've had people reach out and say, "My friend/sister/dad/aunt experienced a fire today, what can I do? Where do they begin?" So we wrote this down as a small guide.
This is a wild beast of a day. The best I can suggest is delegate.
The Office Bag
My mom, in her infinite wisdom the day after the fire, gave me what we affectionately called “the office bag”. It was merely a tote bag with an accordion file folder, notebook, clip board and pens. This becomes your life.
Every company, person, fire department will give you papers. You need to keep EVERY receipt for the first few days (depending on your policy your insurance company will reimburse you for most of your expenses in those first days, this includes food, hotel stay and sometimes even gas). That is where the accordion file folder comes in handy. Just shove it all in there.
Write EVERYTHING down. That notebook is still in use today. Write down the name, date, time and contact info of everyone you talk to and what you talked about in detail. Seriously, everyone. Because your brain won’t remember. Keeping it in a notebook keeps it all in one place. And I guarantee you will have to reference it all later. This was SO helpful for us and still is today.
The clipboard seems crazy, but it’s incredibly helpful. For us, we spent the first few days digging through the house, there was no electricity or water or…tables. So when people (cleaning companies, insurance, etc) needed me to sign things, I usually grabbed this clipboard.
Call your insurance company right away. We have an excellent agent who we have a really great relationship with and he got the ball rolling on filing a claim for us and getting everything else in motion (more on that in a minute). Bill had some amount of insane focus that he actually called our agent before the firefighters even arrived at our house. Have I said he’s kind of amazing? Because he is.
Our insurance company was able to send us an advance on our policy that we could use to buy essentials. The advance was $1500, which sounds like a lot, but when you need EVERYTHING, it goes quickly. We had to pick up the advance from Western Union, lucky I still had my drivers license so we were able to put everything under my name (we did end up finding Bill’s wallet in the rubble a few days later, thank God). Unfortunately our fire was on a Friday so I don’t think we got the advance until Monday or Tuesday. That brings me to the next section.
Create A Donation Central
We live in an amazing community in an amazing city in what I am sure is the best state in the union. We had loads of people who donated all sorts of things. One of our good friends in our neighborhood made his house donation central. I cannot tell you how helpful this was. It allowed Bill and I to focus on the 1000 other things we needed to do. He posted his address as well as a needs list and our sizes on Facebook and Nextdoor. After you watch your house burn, you don’t care who knows your size.
A sweet friend started a GoFundMe for us. It felt weird at first, but it allowed people who were not local (friends and family out of town) to help us when they couldn’t be here physically. We were overwhelmed by the amount of money that was donated.
There are a lot of sites like GoFundMe. Be aware that most of them do take a small portion of what is donated.
SO many people asked, “what do you need” and it was hard to respond to every text and phone call (there are still some that I have not responded to, I am SO very sorry about that). It’s also hard to formulate in your brain what you need when you need everything (I’ll have a whole post on this later). However, as we were able go through the house and see what was lost, it was healing for me to be able to make a quick and easy list on Amazon. I started this for myself, but as people asked what we needed, I or my mom or our friends, just sent them to the Amazon list.
YOUR Shampoo, Conditioner, & Toothpaste
You are going to want to take a shower. And if you take a shower you’ll need shampoo. And chances are when you wash up after a shower, you’ll want to put clean clothes on. BUT you won’t have any.
One thing we didn’t do was tell someone what kind of toiletries we use. I wish we would have done this. One friend brought me my face wash and it made all the difference in the world. Something about using your brand of shampoo, or deodorant, or toothpaste somehow makes you feel a little more normal. Maybe we didn’t say it because I didn’t think about it, I’m not sure. But if your friend goes through this, ask them, and then go buy them those things.
We have amazing friends in our lives. They 100% rallied behind us. I realize this is not the case for everyone. I realize some people might be new to an area and haven’t had that chance to build relationships or a community.
For us, I asked one of my closest female friends, just after the fire, that day to go buy my essentials and Issa’s. She got me pajamas, clothes for the next day, and a few toiletries. One of Bill’s closest friends did the same for him. You will need clothes that night and chances are you won’t have the energy or emotional fortitude to walk into a store. So for real, delegate that to a close friend or family member.
Plastic Storage Bins
The other thing that was incredibly helpful was we asked one of our friends to buy a stack of plastic storage boxes. The firemen asked us if there was anything we needed them to look for straight away, they pulled a few things, Issa’s quilt, my wedding album, my wedding ring, etc. which were all dirty but were important to us and we were able to put them all in those bins until we could get them to the cleaners.
Call the Red Cross
Someone else called the Red Cross for us. Part of me felt really weird about this. That day I kept thinking we don’t deserve their services, it’s for people who have experienced tragedy or are homeless or something that isn’t us. That day, we were all those things. Tragedy like this knocks your pride right on down into submission.
The Red Cross arrived in one of their big vans while the fire fighters were cleaning up and it was incredibly nice to sit in their van and kind of turn off all the madness that was happening outside of it. The Red Cross provided us with little bags of travel toiletries and a Mickey mouse stuffed animal for Issa. They also gave us a reloadable spending card for essentials. We were able to use this the next day, because at that time our advance hadn’t come from the insurance company. Luckily I still had my wallet, but I’d assume for other folks, wallets could be destroyed too, so in some cases, this might be your only funds until you can get to your bank to get new cards.
They were also able to help get Bill’s prescription meds that night so he would have them in the morning. They also worked for months with us to help Bill get a new C-PAP machine and helped us pay for a portion if it. On top of that, they’ve made regular phone calls to us over the last few months just to check in on us.
The Red Cross has been AMAZING for us. I cannot thank them enough.
Boarding Up the House
Your insurance will call a company to come out to board up the house/ secure it from theft. Unfortunately there was some confusion and they didn’t end up arriving until close to 11:00pm, even though our fire started around 2pm.
Make sure you get all the company’s information and the names of the people there. Until I got my notebook I kept it in the notes portion on my phone. I moved to the notepad later because often times in the next few days other people had my phone taking pictures or calling people or whatever. I always had my notebook.
Take the time to make sure they’ve done their job. The company that came out didn’t want to board up a portion of our front window because only a few panels were broken and it, “looked ok”. I fought them on this and made them go get more wood to do it. This may seem silly but I was terrified that someone would try to break in to steal anything that was left, or enter just out of curiosity and end up getting hurt.
Do not pay them! Your insurance company will pay for this (or should).
Vultures and Ambulance Chasers
I wrote a little about this here. There are loads of people that will approach you moments after the fire fighters leave (they legally cannot approach you while they are there), trying to solicit your business. They prey on your high emotional state and try to get you to set up meetings or give you information or talk to you about whatever. They are typically builders, people who buy ruined houses, and private insurance adjusters.
Don’t let them do what they do on you. The ones that approached me, I took their info, said thanks, and that was it. You have way more to do than you even realize and dealing with them and hearing their schpeel is not one of them.
Once the adrenaline starts to subside, there’s a lot of waiting the day of the fire. Bill showered at a neighbor’s house and put on the brand new clothes his friend purchased and was taken to the hospital by a good friend. He was there until close to midnight. For the most part I just sat on the front lawn with my parents and few friends. After I posted on Facebook about what had happened several other friends just came by, which was WONDERFUL. A few neighbors brought us chairs and food.
While everything happened so quickly, there was a lot of waiting. It’s so hard.
Luckily I’m self employed, so there wasn’t anything to do on my end, except notify clients. Again luckily, I had just wrapped up a bunch of big projects. For Bill, he worked for a very large corporation. Our fire was on a Friday so during the weekend he called his boss and let him know what was going on. He was incredibly kind and understanding. On Monday he called HR to figure out what our options were.
Many companies have insurance in place for these kinds of situations. Bill took a leave of absence due to the emotional reactions (which as later diagnosed as a precursor to PTSD), but was still paid the entire time. However, you are still dealing with insurance and health care here, so make sure you’re writing everything down in your notebook.
Where Do You Sleep
We chose to get a hotel room the first night. Issa stayed at a friend’s house. For us it was good to be in a neutral place close to our house. Many people offered to take us in, but I didn’t want to be in a home that would remind me of what we had just lost. We told the hotel manager what had happened and they were able to work with us on a late checkout the next day. They also already had towels and basic toiletries.
Bottom line, do what works for you. Do what makes you feel comfortable. Go with your gut. I also didn’t sleep well that night, I cried a lot, I wailed. It was loud and I’m really glad that if anyone heard it, it was just strangers in a hotel and Bill.
Again, do what works for you here.