“It Happened to Me” – My House Caught on Fire… A True Story

By Bill Hatch, ASR Director of Operations
Originally Published March 2013

As Director of Operations for ASR Construction (specialists in Fire, Water, Sewer, Mold and Reconstruction) and after over 20 years of working with clients who have had major losses due to water and fire damage, I thought I had seen enough to understand what they were going through and how they felt, but now I am on the other side of it….and was I ever wrong! January 11, 2012 was the night that forever changed how I work with clients who are dealing with a major loss, from here forward I can truly say “I know what you are going through and I understand.” Because it happened to me….My house caught on fire!

The Call
January 11, 2012 12:45am

When your cell phone rings at 12:45am it is usually a wrong number, or real bad news. Before you answer, you ask yourself…WHO would be calling at 12:45 in the morning? But, with over 20 years of being on call while owning my own emergency service company and now with ASR Construction, it comes with the job, Fire, Water, Sewer, Mold…it is what we do and we respond when needed 24 hours a day.

So when my phone rang in the early morning , I saw the name “Jessica… “, on the caller ID and this is when I knew the 12:45am call was not going to be good news… as Jessica was my tenant in my rental home in Oxnard.

But this is not like any other rental home; a few months ago it was my family’s home. For the last 15 years I put everything I had in to it, I met my wife while living here, our engagement party was there, and our children started their lives there. We had just moved to a new home a few months prior…I had been a landlord for just a few very short months.
As I stared at the phone, and hit the answer button, a shaky female voice on the other end responded…”Bill…, this is Jessica…. your house is on Fire.”

It took me a moment to respond, I can’t even remember exactly what I said to Jessica except that I was on my way. I got dressed, grabbed a jacket and my camera and I was out the door!

The Drive Over

As I drove the 15 minutes to my former home, I called Jessica back to make sure everyone was ok. I found out that all 3 smoke detectors went off. She, her husband and 2 kids living in the home all got out, were safe, and that the fire department was on scene. I again made sure everyone was ok and told her I would be there in a few minutes.

So many things went through my head during the drive over. Was it my fault? Did I do or NOT do something in my 15 plus years of living there? Was it my furnace, was it my stove, their dryer…What? As I approached my old neighborhood I could see smoke. A little closer I saw lights, the fire trucks and firemen, it was like a scene in a movie and I was right in the middle of it.

On Scene

Nothing was familiar. I had driven up and down that street thousands of times and I didn’t recognize it. I had to park about a block away due to all the Emergency Response vehicles. As I walked to my former home, the air was thick with smoke, that made me choke. The sound of chain saws cutting through the new roof was deafening and what I saw put a lump in my throat. The garage door was torn open and off its tracks, nothing inside was recognizable, 6 firemen were on the roof with sledge hammers and chain saws, 2 others were flooding the freshly cut openings with 100’s of gallons of water and foam. At first glance it looked as if only the garage was damaged but I knew once I saw them flooding the house,…whatever the fire didn’t get, the polluted soot filled water would, and everything would have to be removed.

As I turned to my left I saw my tenants next to their car in their pajamas wrapped in blankets with nothing but socks on their feet. They were all very shaken but ok, the kids were asleep in the car, like nothing had happened . I could not image what they went through and the fear they must of felt. It had once been my home, It could have been my family.

My tenants Dave and Jessica are a military family, they wanted a home close to the bases in Port Hueneme and Point Mugu, and they wanted a larger home for their 2 kids and the dogs. Dave told me they had gone to bed and he was awakened by an alarm, after searching the house he realized it was coming from the garage. Once the interior door had been opened he saw smoke and flames and the other 2 alarms in the house went off. He was able to get everyone out in time.

The 3 smoke detectors that I installed saved their family from potential injury or worse. I cannot stress enough the importance of installing smoke detectors. According to the California Health and Safety Code Section 13113.7, there must be a smoke detector placed outside each room in the hallway where a person sleeps. Smoke detectors can be battery operated unless the room is newly constructed. If the room is constructed after August 14, 1992, the smoke detector must be hardwired with a battery backup. Smoke detector regulations can be reviewed with the local department of building and safety.

About a half an hour later, the American Red Cross showed up and assisted them by getting them hotel rooms for a couple days and getting their kids into a warm bed.

On the Fire’s Destruction

Before going to bed Jessica recalled putting clothes in the washer and in the dryer @ 9:45pm. It was a cold night and the furnace was on as well. The Washer, Dryer, Furnace and hot water heater were all side by side in the back corner of the garage and this was where the fire started. The fire caught the entire garage on fire and then went up a vent chase right into the upstairs attic where it destroyed everything above the second floor ceiling. Once the fire department put out the fire in the garage, they thought they were finished and it was just a small garage fire, until they saw smoke pouring out of the second floor attic vents. This is when the real damage happened, this is when the ceilings were ripped down, holes were punched in every upstairs wall, toilets and cabinets were ripped out while trying to find and vent the fire.

About an hour after the fire was out, I was allowed inside to see the damage. What I saw was heartbreaking! Everywhere I looked I saw destruction, the bathrooms I built, the tile I set, the carpet I installed was all destroyed. My tenants were allowed in as well, so they could try and find their wallets, car keys, clothes that could be saved, anything that they needed for the next couple days.
Once the investigation was done for the evening and the fire department were finished hosing and foaming everything down, they packed up and little by little everyone started to leave. The Red Cross left to get my tenants into a hotel room, as did the large trucks with the flood lights. Everyone was gone except me. The fire department could not close up the garage because the garage door was destroyed so everything was wide open…I couldn’t leave it like this. At 4:00am, I called Chris, our on call Emergency Service Manager and he dispatched one of ASR’s Emergency Service crews for board up service to secure the house, then I went to get my truck. I drove it into the driveway with the headlights shining at this black hole that used to be my garage, alone, in darkness and silent… I waited and this is when it all hit me…This was real!

On Recovery and Rebuilding

After our crews arrived and were finished with board up and tarping the roof, I couldn’t go home yet because there was still so much to do, I went to my office and went into work mode. This was my home, but now it was my job to get things done and this is how I was going to deal with it. Board up was done and the site was secure. I had already called my insurance company, and filed a claim. I had to get temporary power to the house for the refrigerator, (nothing worse than a fridge full of rotting food after a few days) and the upcoming demo of the home. I scheduled the electrician for temp power, and had a storage container delivered for my tenants belongings that could be removed from the home and saved . Once the sun came up I had a crew go over with our dump truck and with my tenants approval we cleaned up all the debris from garage that was piled in the driveway by the fire department, they washed everything down and made it presentable and safe, as we didn’t want kids playing in fire damaged debris.

In the hours following, the fire department continued their investigations, I contacted an industrial hygienist to have the house tested for asbestos because the home was built in 1979-80 and we needed to get a report prior to demolition later in the week, the Insurance adjustors made contact and I had our Emergency Response crew go onsite and determine how much of the house was now water damaged as well. Our Emergency Service crews use Infrared cameras and moisture meters that can “see through” walls and determine just how much is wet and document it all with pictures without being destructive.

When the adjuster arrived later in the day he was shocked at how much was already taken care of because he normally deals with loss victims who do not know what steps need to be taken or even have a plan. I didn’t think I had a plan either, but being in this business, I just knew what needed to be accomplished and I just went into that mode, it was how I was going to deal with my loss, and I wasn’t ready to just stop and think about what had happened.

In the following days, the investigation was complete and the cause was still undetermined, it was classified as accidental and was either the furnace or the clothes dryer. We met the adjuster and a scope was written up for the rebuild, we had an engineer come out to look at the structure so new trusses for the roof could be built, we had the entire house with the exception of the kitchen completely removed of drywall and all damaged debris. The house was taken down to the studs and now looked unrecognizable.

As I write this, we are waiting on engineering, city permits and funds to be released so the rebuild can start, and all the decisions that will come with it, from the project management side and as the owner of the property. Most of my emotional attachment is gone, this house, which was once home, will now truly become a rental.

A Sign?

I try and look at the Brightside of everything, and this is no exception. I have learned a great deal even at this early stage of the rebuild that will help me with clients who are dealing with losses like this, how could it not?
My father, who has taught me so much and helped me with so many projects at this house, drove by the morning of the fire around 9am, right before I had the crews show up to do the initial clean-up. He took a picture of a giant blue heron on the roof of the house. (In 15 years I have never seen a blue heron near our home) He watched it pace back and forth as to look over the damage. He emailed it to me with some pretty interesting info on the Blue Heron…
The Heron represents strength, purity, patience and long life. The Iroquois tribe held the blue heron as a very good omen, a very lucky sign.  The heron is also a symbol of going with the flow, and working with the elements of Mother Nature rather than struggling against her.

Looking Forward

I am thankful everyone got out ok and is safe, I could not image how I would feel if someone was hurt in my house and I am very thankful my wife and children did not have to go through an experience like this.

This has reminded me to have a plan! In the days following the fire I have had many discussions with my family, on smoke detectors, meeting places, and how to get out of the windows in their bedrooms. I even set off every smoke detector in our new home so they knew what they sounded like.

I am thankful my tenants did not lose as much as they could have. They did not have renters insurance, even after I emailed them all the info on the importance of having it and the very low cost of acquiring it.
I am thankful for where I work and what I do for a living; it has given me the knowledge and experience to better deal with all of this.

I am thankful that I was properly covered with the right Insurance, and have a great agent who took care of my needs even when I didn’t know what they should be! Thanks Tim Blackwell!!

Advice to Others, What You Can Learn From My Loss and My Past Experience

  • Prepare and educate children about fire and its dangers to prevent tragedies. A prepared child is more likely to escape unharmed. Set off smoke alarms so children know what they sound like, what they mean, and what to do!
  • Develop an effective escape plan and practice it at least twice a year.
  • Don’t leave burning candles unattended, especially near flammable or combustible materials.
  • If a fire starts in your home, get out and stay out. As you escape, close all doors between you and the fire.
  • Once you’ve escaped, call 911 from outside the home. It is dangerous to stay inside to make the call.
  • Place smoke alarms outside each sleeping area, inside any room where the door is typically shut, and on every level of the house, including the basement.
  • Leave batteries in smoke alarms. Nuisance activations caused by cooking can be addressed by moving the alarm farther away from the kitchen, not removing the batteries!
  • If a fire starts in your home, get out and stay out. As you escape, close all doors between you and the fire.
  • Have a plan, an Emergency Response Plan, for your home, your family and your association if that’s where you live. What to do, where to meet etc.
  • Clean your dryer and your vents of all debris; it can be fuel for a fire. Most household fires start due to a clogged dryer vent.
  • Don’t run clothes dryer or furnace while you sleep.
  • Place Fire Extinguishers near kitchen and other areas in your home. Keep them up to date.
  • If you rent, purchase renters Insurance, it’s only a couple hundred dollars a year, a very small price to pay. Many times you can bundle it with your Auto Insurance policy and the cost will be minimal…So please check it out, I will never rent the house back out without proof of renters Insurance…I have seen too much loss!

Be sure to “Like” my personal Facebook page on the fire for updates as well as photos and video of the entire rebuild process from start to finish.