This morning I sit in the comfort of my home with a cup of coffee reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about the horrifying fires in California. I am heartbroken reading about the families devastated by this situation. I can relate, to a lesser degree, since we lost our home in Cascade to a fire in September of 2017. Fortunately, no lives were lost, it wasn't our primary residence, and the fire was mostly contained to our property. However, the emotional turmoil caused by the fire was still surprising.
On a relaxing Sunday at home in Eagle, my husband received a call to notify us that our home in Cascade was on fire. Devastated, we immediately jumped in the truck and drove the longest 1.5 hour drive of my life. Neither of us spoke. Each preoccupied by our own personal turmoil trying to remember what we might have done wrong. We were also worrying with the dry conditions the fire would spread to our neighbors and possibly the beautiful forest surrounding Cascade Lake.
When we arrived, our home seemed like a blackened doll house with the stove upstairs dangling dangerously after a portion of the 2nd floor had caved in. At the end it was an unrecognizable mangled pile of black metal with garage doors. Firefighters from all over the area did an amazing job keeping the fire contained to only our property, but it was a complete loss which included several 100-year-old majestic ponderosa pines. It melted the side of my parent’s motorhome and scorched a few of our neighbor’s trees. The fire marshal determined the fire started in the bathroom exhaust fan. Apparently, it sparked, caught fuzz on fire, and smoldered for days before spreading to the rest of the house.
In the weeks that followed we continued with our lives in a zombie-like state. We mourned for our weekend getaway. We focused mainly on things we could not change. We questioned whether it would have been better to be there, so we could stop the fire or if being there would have been even worse. What could we have done differently to change the past?
I felt immense guilt as caring people around me made the typical comments, “At least no one was hurt” or “You can build a better home” or “It’s just stuff”. They were right, but why did I feel so bad? At the time, I didn’t feel fortunate. I felt unlucky. I lost a home that symbolized everything my husband and I had been working towards since we were married 20+ years ago. This wasn’t in my financial plan. Yes, I was grateful it wasn’t a child, but we were still losing more, in my mind, than just “stuff”. I was truly heartbroken to have lost the towering trees that I admired every morning from the windows of my bedroom. They gave me peace, and they can never be replaced in my lifetime. Since my husband isn’t a traveler and rarely takes a day off, I was saddened by the loss of time spent enjoying life on weekends in Cascade as a family. My mind raced through the emotion of what I call a “darkened state”. I lived in a constant state of negativity. I was also angry at myself for not being able to focus on “the bright side”.
I rarely told friends about our home unless they specifically asked about it, and I dreaded every interaction where the topic might come up. I didn’t want others to feel bad for us. I was feeling bad enough for everyone. However, I would randomly blurt out to complete strangers that my house had burned down. I’d be shopping and announce when a salesperson approached that my home had just burned down. I read later this is something people often do after losing a home. Maybe it’s because I really did need to talk about it with someone separated from the emotion. People felt so awkward when I blurted it out that they didn’t address “the bright side” nor did they let me drown in my pity. They just listened, acknowledged it, and eventually redirected me.
Thankfully I had very few decisions I needed to make in the first month or so after the fire. As many of you have heard me say, we can’t be logical when we are emotional. I certainly wasn’t being logical. If you can wait until the emotion subsides to make important financial decisions, do it. You’re likely to make better decisions if you wait.
If you know someone suffering a complete loss of their home, let them know it’s normal to experience grief. A home and its contents may not be human, but the loss is still meaningful and painful. Give them permission to wait, if possible, to make important financial decisions. The road ahead will likely be challenging, long and emotional, so be there to support them and get them help if they need it.
Unfortunately, many of the people in California are losing their primary residence, and with it, a sense of security. I can only imagine what they are experiencing emotionally. I assume that over the next month or so many of them will also find they were under-insured in this booming economy. That’s what we are unlikely to see on the news after the fires are over and the media has moved on to a new subject. Many people affected may suffer emotionally and financially for years after this loss. I, personally, began to feel better as the rubble was cleared and our new place began to take shape. Although it's not complete, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
In an upcoming blog, I'll discuss what I have learned through my experience about homeowners insurance.