Update on our House Fire

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This summer was pretty difficult, as we had a minor dishwasher flood that required us to replace our lower-level flooring and led to the discovery of a mold problem in the downstairs half bathroom, requiring new drywall and a new vanity. In the midst of all that, I had two surgeries (ankle reconstruction and abdominal surgeries) and we put new countertops in our kitchen. Of course, the downstairs sinks and toilet were not functional while I was on crutches due to all these issues, so that made things even more fun. Even better, once I managed to fall and break the working upstairs toilet while on crutches, meaning we had to drive to Home Depot to use the toilet for a few days—really fun when one is on crutches with a zero-weight-bearing order for one foot.

But once the summer concluded and I had started rehab and my new job at a wonderful institution, I thought we’d at least gotten through the tough stuff for the year. Wow, was I wrong. On September 3, I was teaching in Winston-Salem at the time and checked my email during my lunch break to discover the following:




Our scorched cat carrier is an especially pathetic image from that day.

I initially thought it was spam, but there were no links to click. Then I recognized the name of my neighbor and that it was actually a legitimate email. Apparently lightning had struck my house and caused an electrical short that started a fire in the attic. At that point, I called my wife (who was working at Duke) to get her to check on the status. She arrived after the fire department had already quenched the fire, but one of our two cats was still somewhere in the house. After learning a pet was still inside, the firemen went back in and found the pathetic animal, who as the captain of the house had decided to go down with the ship. They apparently gave Oscar oxygen—something I’d have paid to see.

I still had two classes left to teach and realized my upper-level class was about to start, so I went downstairs to the seminar room and informed my students of the situation, “Hey everyone, sorry I’m going to be a few minutes late today. My house just caught fire, so I’ve got some insurance and other issues to take care of. Just give me a few minutes and I’ll be back down to start the class.” They were understandably shocked but patiently waited until we could start class about ten minutes late. After finishing my final class around 3:15, I immediately got in the car and made the hour and a half commute back to the house, not quite sure of what I’d find on the other end.

Unfortunately, it was worse than I had hoped; upon entering the house it was pretty clear this wasn’t just a minor fire but was rather something that would require a nearly complete rebuild of our little townhouse. The smell was overpowering—something like a combination of barbecued chicken and a little bit of rubber and just plain old smoke. It was strong enough that after a few minutes inside, our eyes would begin to burn from the smoke. Apparently, spending a little bit of time inside after a fire like that is the equivalent of smoking hundreds of cigarettes (or so we were told), but I can testify to it not being an especially addictive environment. The ServiceMaster folks were already onsite working to remove whatever furniture and items could be immediately taken.

Upon my arrival, we set about pulling out the surviving items we would need for the immediate future—clothes, etc.—while also grabbing my computing equipment to make sure we could recover as much data as possible. Nearly everything that was plugged into the wall was fried, but I had an industrial-grade battery backup (UPS) for my studio equipment, which helped most (though not all) of that gear survive the power surge. My workstation was also underneath a lofted bed, which helped protect the iMac and other gear from water damage and the ceiling that collapsed onto the bed. That gear is still trashed long-term due to smoke and ash, but at least the data was salvageable (though my most important data is of course backed up offsite as well).

Our friends helped us sift through the house and recover what we could that night, and after an exhausting afternoon we stayed the night with our friends Tom and Lauren, who had offered their spare bedroom until we could find other accommodations. I can’t say enough about how amazing our friends have been throughout this ordeal, both those near and those far away. We soon learned of an effort to raise support for us in the wake of the fire, and we have been blown away by the generosity of those who have given—even from a few who do not know us well or even at all. We’re incredibly grateful for that generosity, which has been at least as encouraging spiritually as materially.

That Wednesday was spent sifting through more rubble and trying to triage. That morning definitely had the scariest moment of this entire ordeal: upon looking more closely at my insurance policy, I realized that my insurance might not cover anywhere close to the full amount for this disaster, which far exceeds my policy limit on structural damage in particular, since my policy was written to cover walls-in damage. What exactly constitutes walls-in, however, is always a matter of interpretation. Within a few days, however, we learned that because this fire was the result of an external disaster (lightning), the HOA’s insurance was actually responsible for the internal structural damage as well. We’ll still be around or above our insurance limit, but that at least means we won’t wind up on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars restoring the structure.

Thursday was of course another teaching day at Wake Forest, so Kari took care of what she could until I arrived again in the afternoon. I must admit to being less prepared than usual for my classes that day and for a little while after the fire, but my students—particularly those in my upper-level apocalypticism seminar—have been remarkably understanding as we fight through the semester together. We were finally able to sign a short-term lease for an apartment a few miles from our house that Sunday, purchasing an air mattress, sheets, and a couple pillows so we could have a place to sleep.

Unfortunately, we didn’t think to buy a blanket, so that first night was a bit cold. It was also a bit pathetic when we went to eat a late night dinner and realized that neither of us had grabbed any silverware. Fingers it was. We also had no can opener to open the cans we had rescued from our pantry. It really is the little things in life…

After half a week without a stitch of furniture, we were able to get some rented furniture (a couch, coffee table, end table, chair, kitchen table and chairs, and bed) delivered to our apartment. Unfortunately, life doesn’t wait for one to get settled with utensils (we excitedly found a few dirty utensils still in our dishwasher on a visit earlier that week), furniture, and such, so the rest of the last two months has been largely spent kicking and clawing to catch back up on our other responsibilities—most notably the four classes I’m teaching, job applications, and a dissertation. That I no longer had a desk and needed to replace two computers and two external monitors—not to mention migrating all my data and replacing other less immediately important computer/studio gear—only made that process that much more difficult. I finally got a desk about two weeks ago (10/9) after a month of working from a coffee table and kitchen table without any space to actually work. Again, it’s the little things.

It wasn’t until last weekend (3/18) that I was caught up on the bare minimum for the semester so far, having gotten four draft chapters to my dissertation advisor, two midterms written and graded, the first round of job applications sent out, and a new work area finally set up. Kari still doesn’t have a desk and has been working from the kitchen table now that I’ve vacated it. Hopefully we’ll get something set up for her this week. And today is the first day I finally have had the opportunity to sit down and provide an update on our current situation. Again, we can’t thank those who have so generously given or helped us throughout this. Everything from meals to prayers has been greatly appreciated and will not be forgotten.

I’m also really grateful I married so well. This would have been much more of a nightmare if I didn’t have such an amazing wife who has handled all of this incredibly well.

They’re going to have to take the house down to the studs and basically rebuild everything. It took nearly a month for the insurance adjuster to get a completed estimate to the general contractor so demolition and rebuilding could begin. As of today, demolition is well underway (most of the upstairs should be demo’ed by this evening), and rebuilding should begin before too long.

I’ve included pictures from various points in the process below:


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