Lessons Learned

It’s been seven weeks since the fire and while progress has been made, some things are stuck at a standstill. We finally got the go-signal to begin demolition and cleanup, after weeks of failed attempts to figure out the cause of the fire. It will be a relief to drive up to the property without having to see the pile of rubble. The recent severe weather here, however, has pushed back our demolition plans. I am both eager to get it done and dreading it. But I continue to remind myself that every day is one day closer to being back home again.

The fire has taught us many things. Valuable things, both practical and life-changing. We have learned volumes about the depth of love that exists in friendship, the kindness of strangers, and how easy it is to make that leap from stranger to friend. Many people have told us how strong we are, how resilient. But we can’t take credit for that. What we are inside, we owe to our faith, and where we fall short, the people around us—both far and near—bolster us up, lifting us higher than we can stand on our own.

I know many others have gone through worse tragedies and suffered more than we have. I don’t use that to console myself. Instead, I think of how much potential there is for all of us to reach out to others, extend a helping hand. Whether in the form of material help or well wishes, or just the reassurance that they are not alone in their ordeal, it doesn’t take much to transform despair into hope. My uncle once told me: “There is great joy when God answers your prayers. There is even greater joy when God uses you to answer someone else’s prayers.”

I hope you feel that greater joy.

For some weeks now, I’ve been trying to think of a recipe to share with you. Or take photos to show you. In truth, it’s been difficult. My motivation to cook, bake, or shoot hasn’t been the same. I know it will take time and I also know that I can’t rush it. I think, too, that part of it is because there is something else I’d like to share. Something that isn’t as exciting as a new dish or beautiful photos but one that I feel is even more important, even though my hope is that you will never need it. What I want to share is a list of things we’ve learned dealing with the aftermath of the fire. It may not be yummy or exciting, but it might be the most important post I write. Because somewhere down the road, this might actually make a difference in someone’s life.



  1. Have a fire escape plan. If you have a two-storey house, plan different scenarios. What if you are trapped in the first floor? The second floor? If your escape plan involves a fire ladder, have everyone actually use it at least once. If the plan requires exiting from a window, walk everyone through it. Tom had a fire escape plan 15 years ago when he added a second floor to the house. He walked Tim through it just that one time, and all these years later, Tim was able to use that escape route to save his grandmother, without wasting precious seconds trying to figure out how to get out of the house. Children will remember.
  2. Make sure your smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are working properly. Keep a fire extinguisher and read the instructions. Remember the acronym PASS: Pull the pin, Aim the hose, Squeeze the trigger, and Sweep. Don’t attempt to put out a fire that isn’t contained. Instead, head for safety and call for help. When using a fire extinguisher, aim at the base of the fire, not at the top where the flames may look more intense. If your local fire department offers practice sessions, take advantage of the chance to get some hands-on training. Make a family outing of it.
  3. Be mindful of possible fire hazards in your home. If you use a fireplace, be careful about how you dispose of the ashes. Embers can smolder for days, so don’t throw them along with the trash. Don’t overload circuits and don’t forget to put out candles. Don’t be quick to mix and match power adaptors. Some may look the same but deliver vastly different voltage. Since we tend to leave power adaptors plugged in, you don’t want to accidentally fry a gadget AND start a small fire in the process.



  1. Get a fireproof box. They are rated differently, some for 30-minute fires and others for 2 1/2 hours or more. Keep your valuables and original documents inside, as well as photocopies of your license and other forms of ID that you usually carry around with you. If you have a safety deposit box, keep your valuables and seldom-used original documents there instead. Don’t forget these:

      Immmigration documents, if applicable
      Birth certificates
      Social Security card
      Titles, property and auto
      A list of online accounts, logins and passwords
      Any documents you may be holding for someone else, such as an elderly relative

  2. If you have anything important that can be scanned, scan it and then email it to yourself if you have a web-based email account. Or upload it to an online storage service if you’re using one, along with other important files you may have. I’ve heard wonderful things about DropBox and had considered using them before the fire. But I balked at the cost of storage (I did have almost 1TB of data to back up, mostly photos and media) and now that cost seems like a bargain compared to the value of the files I lost.
  3. As you’re scanning your documents, make hard copies as well. Put them in a folder and stash them in the home of a trusted friend. You can be document buddies and they can stash a copy of their documents with you, too. It’s highly unlikely that both your homes will be destroyed at the same time, so it’s a good third-layer backup.
  4. For those in the US, if your immigration status has changed from temporary to permanent (e.g. from student to resident), head to your local Social Security Administration office and have them update your records. Otherwise, they can—and will—allege that they have no proof of your legal status in the country. Replacement documents from Immigration Services proving otherwise can take up to a year to process. If this should ever happen to you, head to the US Federal Court in the district where you were sworn in and they can give you a document that certifies your legal status.



  1. Know your insurance policy. Ask your agent or provider to explain anything that isn’t clear to you. If you have specific items of value, make sure they are covered. Some insurance policies have an automatic limit on business losses unless you specifically request business coverage, so if you have a home office, make sure your office equipment is adequately covered. There are also automatic limits on jewelry, furs, fine art, silverware, antiques, and even Oriental rugs. Some policies may even limit coverage for camera equipment and musical instruments, so make sure you check that if you have those items. Update your policy whenever you acquire something valuable. Tom had his homeowner’s policy years ago, before we were married, and it was never updated to reflect the jewelry I had, some of my antiques, the rare and collectible gold coins my father passed on to me last year, etc. If you’re renting, make sure you get renter’s insurance.
  2. Take a video camera and go around your house filming everything you have. Open drawers, open closet doors, go up in the attic, down in the basement—document everything. One of the most difficult and painful tasks we’ve had to complete (and we have yet to complete it) is creating an inventory of everything that we lost. Which pretty much means every single thing in our house, from Tom’s model trains that he bought in Germany, the many different chess sets he bought for Tim every time he traveled overseas, to the number of kitchen towels I had in the laundry room. I know I’ll forget many things and the task would have been so much easier with a visual to use as a reference. Oh, and do stash that videotape in your safety deposit or fireproof box. I had tons of photos I could have used and my photos were backed up in multiple drives to protect them from hard drive failure, but the fire destroyed them all.
  3. Always pay your premiums on time. Sign up for automatic payment or renewal if possible. If you are even one day late and lose everything that day that you aren’t covered—ouch.

Finally, I want to tell you that even if everything you’ve ever owned is gone, it’s not the end of the world. It gets easier. Things may never be the same, but there will be many ways in which they will be better. You will grow closer to your family and friends, and you will experience the generous compassion of people. So continue to be kind, give of yourself to others. Belong to a community because believe me, there is great strength in numbers.

The final lesson that I wish I had learned earlier? I wish I learned how to receive graciously. But that’s one lesson that all of you are teaching me now. A friend put it in perspective for me when she said, “You know that joy you feel when you are able to give to other people? If you don’t learn how to receive, you’ll be depriving other people of that same joy.”

I want you to know that I wake up every morning thankful for all of you. And when you say that you marvel at my strength, in truth, what you see is the strength that you’ve imparted to me.


46 thoughts on “Lessons Learned”

  1. I’m really encouraged, practically and spiritually, but this post. Thank you for giving of yourself through this ordeal. I’m so happy to know that God’s grace is growing you and keeping your family in his love through the Church. =)

  2. “What we are inside, we owe to our faith, and where we fall short, the people around us—both far and near—bolster us up, lifting us higher than we can stand on our own.” Goodness, what a line Erika. I couldn’t agree more. Makes me so eternally grateful for faith, family, friends…and you!

    Thank you for sharing with us what you’ve learned as a result of this painful experience. I’m sure it was hard to write it all down, for so many reasons – but if this should happen to someone else – the journey will be easier because of what you’ve written here. I know I will take your advice. Most importantly, the lesson of learning to receive.

    We love you, dear friend.

  3. Oh, Erika. So very moving. And the fact that in your loss you are teaching us is amazing. Thank you for that. And I’m so very glad you guys are getting a chance to move forward with this. Take care. My thoughts are with you.

  4. Out of your misfortune, you are helping others by what you just wrote…A bunch of what you stated I know I need to do…thank you and good luck as you take your next steps in this process.

  5. when my son was born, I used to burn CD’s of his photos every 3-6 months and send the CD’s with my husband to his work, I figured if I lost it all… I would still have my babies photos… but you do bring up excellent points I have not done a CD in years now…. and I really do need to get things better documented. My Mom always stores her important papers in the deep freeze, but I dont know how fire safe that truly is.

  6. Erika,
    Thank you so much for your moving post. I can’t even imagine what you have gone through and so many times I take so much for granted and sometimes forget to be thankful. Thank you for the reminder and the list of things to prepare.
    God bless.

  7. Wow this is a great post Ericka. Your faith is inspiring. The lists are such a great way to reach out and help others. It was a real pleasure to meet you at BlogHer Food and I look forward to following your journey!

  8. You are an amazing person to not only make it through this experience intact, but to use it to help us avoid the same struggles. I have my son’s birth certificate sitting on my desk right now – thanks for the reminder to put it somewhere safer! xox

  9. Thanks for writing this post today – I cannot imagine what you are going through, but I hope you get to move forward soon. My smoke detectors are malfunctioning and my hubby just commented last night that he was going to fix them today. I will make sure that we don’t forget.

  10. Erika, my brother in law, the firefighter, told me to thank you for this post. He’s not big on computers, so I read it to him. He said without a doubt that you have saved anyone who reads this post countless hours of heartache on many different levels. We already have the firesafe box, but after what happened to you guys, I told James we must get a safety deposit box too. He is an immigrant just like both of you, and it would not do to lose all that paperwork. Thank you for reminding us to get on that.

  11. Thank you, Erika, for all of this helpful information. It’s something none of us wants to think about but we must. Hang in there, friend – I am sure everything will continue to get better and better.

  12. I hope as many people as possible read this post. You have served to educate and re-enforce what everyone needs to now.

    Like Maggy, I was struck by your sentence “What we are inside, we owe to our faith, and where we fall short, the people around us—both far and near—bolster us up, lifting us higher than we can stand on our own.”

    Even when we may fall short, God provides us what we need through our family, friends, neighbours and yes, even strangers.

    I wish for you that the road to rebuilding becomes smoother everyday.

  13. I am very sorry that I found your blog because of a tweet that someone sent regarding your tragedy. However, I am very happy to have found your blog. You are all kinds of amazing!

  14. Thank you Erika for these valuable lessons. We always think these things won’t happen to us, but if we prepare for that possibility it will make things so much easier.

    I think about you often and continue to pray for you and your family. I was reading about the typhoon in the Phillipines and was hoping that all of your friends and family there are safe.

  15. I am such a procrastinator. Thanks for the reminders. I forgot too, that while the girls know how to get out of the house from upstairs we never discussed what to do if they are in the basement when a fire happens. We’ll be discussing that today.

    Can I share an amusing tidbit with you? Well I’m gonna anyway! For our anniversary this year my dear husband got me a wonderful gift, a pair of Fluevog shoes. Really cute! He told me a couple weeks later that he wants to put them on our insurance policy. Forget the jewelry, save the shoes! Its funny because we haven’t documented hardly anything, and the first mention is of the shoes. I can’t complain though, they’re really lovely shoes. :)

  16. I remember the day I heard about your loss; sitting at my kitchen table working; my daughter’s voice coming to me from a CD; my dogs laying at my feet and everything I owned safe, right where I expected them to be.

    And I started making some changes. I didn’t test the smoke alarm batteries, I just changed them. I bought a firesafe box for critical documents and have starting making digital copies of those items as well as photos and VCR tapes from when my kids are little; providing copies to them and other family members. The escape route from upstairs is a serious issue but one I admit I have never addressed before and despite the difficulty of making that happen with my home; at least it’s now on the agenda.

    Small steps but important ones and ones I have known all along I should attend to…but seems we (or at least I) sometimes need a strong dose of reality to recognize; this isn’t a plan you’ll never need; look at what just happened to Erika’s family. That same week, Colorado also experienced the most devastating fires ever in the form of loss of residences and I was more moved at the reality of those numbers than ever before.

    I doubt there is little in this experience that will ever make this loss seem worthwhile…but if there is some very small compensation, know that it has made a difference in the lives of people around you.

  17. Erika, this is one of the best posts I’ve ever read. Not least because of your emotional and spiritual insight. The tips are so very useful, and I thank you very much for sharing them. But most of all, I am humbled by your attitude. You always put things into the best, truest perspective and it’s beautiful.

  18. Thank you so much for writing this. You’ve allowed our community to be shaken up and realize that nothing, absolutely nothing of this world, lasts forever. Thank you for allowing us to have that greater joy of helping you. We’re always here and we’re praying for you. You are a joy to us, Erika.

  19. Your picture is just heart breaking. I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it is to lose everything that way – the photos, the family heirlooms…
    But your post is very helpful and very inspirational! It is so thoughtful of you to share valuable information with all of us while you are going through such a difficult time yourself. I wish you the best of luck as you and your family proceed with your recovery and rebuild efforts.

  20. Oh Erika, I’m still at a total loss for words. I cannot begin to imagine the place you are in. I appreciate your ability to articulate your situation so eloquently and share so others may not have to face the same fate. The information shared will truly help another if they heed your advice. I know I’m going to put a fire plan together for us. I’m also going to have my survivalist expert son-in-law come here and read your tips. He’ll learn a lot too.

    Thank you.

  21. Erika,
    Thank you for such a wonderful and helpful post. I’ve been working on a similar “to-do” list to post on my blog since my sister recently lost her house in a fire. I haven’t finished yet! but am grateful for such useful information (as we are not immigrants, I never thought about the impact of losing those documents for people who are).

    Living in the Middle East, the standards for safety and preparedness are a bit different than we are accustomed to–we searched high and low before we found a smoke detector at a local hardware store; we did not find fire extinguishers. We tried to find a fire escape ladder for our very high second story escape route, but there are none (so I am tying together some old sheets that we can climb down if necessary!). We keep a backpack with all our documents so we can grab and go in a hurry (I have not found a fireproof box). We are in a less than ideal situation, but we are making the best of it.

    One thing I would like to add to your list, concerning verifying your insurance policy, is to make sure you understand what the insurance company means by “replacement value” of your possessions. In my sister’s case, they found out it did not mean the cost to replace the lost items with a new one! Rather, they receive only what buying a used item of the same make/model/AND AGE would cost (whether or not such an item exists is irrelevant). Quite an eye-opener, and not nearly enough money to replace what they lost.

    My thoughts are with you and your family. You’ve been an inspiration to so many. Thank you.

  22. Thank you so much for this very important post, Erika. It covers things we don’t often think about or just put off. I cried when I read what your Uncle and friend told you…SO very true. I pray that things move quickly for you so that you can get a little closer to rebuilding your home. You are indeed an inspiration.

    Love, light and peace,

  23. Thank you for the lessons you have learned and shared. You have brought me to tears. What your uncle and friend said to you touched my heart. All I can give to you is what I have given you since I heard about your loss is my prayers for your strength through your trials and it appears they are being answered. Continuing with you from afar, Belinda

  24. As others have said, a beautiful AND valuable post.

    Several years ago I was awakened by smoke detectors in my home – chimney fire which never escaped the chimney, but I sat outside while I was expecting it to…my pets safe with me…and what I thought about was did I have the right insurance…dish towells came to mind – silly :)!, but when I read that you were unsure of how many kitchen towells were in the laundry room, it brought to mind all of the myriad of things that have to be done in the kind of loss you are dealing with.

    It took me a week to emotionally recover from just the possibility of what I might have had to deal with and ultimately, I only had to replace a chimney – small potatoes.

    Add my prayers of love and support for you, your family and all involved with building your new home! And I do think that one of the most difficult, but valuable things we all can do is to receive with Grace – for all of the reasons you wrote.


  25. I’ve thought a lot about some sort of pack to grab on my way out, if ever the need arises.

    I’ve purchased the satchel. I have yet to fill it with the stuff to carry. I plan to keep it under my bed.

    I’m filling it this afternoon.


  26. Thank you for sharing all of this great information…although I wish of course that the fire never happened and that you didn’t have to experience the painful details of everything you shared, I appreciate your heart in wanting us all to be better prepared, too. I’ll definitely be taking your advice, and have already been talking to hubby about getting a bigger fireproof box that will fit our hard drives and larger documents.

    As for your motivation, I agree that you shouldn’t rush it. Be gentle with yourself, and give yourself permission to set cooking, baking, and shooting aside when it becomes overwhelming rather than invigorating. It’ll be there when you get back…and so will we. <3

  27. Your post is so important that I made my husband sit down and read it too.

    You’ve learned some valuable lessons, and I think we’re all so amazed that you’ve had the strength to share it all with us. Last summer we stayed at a rental house in MA. We put burned out embers in a bag and left them on the side of the (very old and dry) wooden deck. At 4am we woke to crackling and a smoke-filled beach house, and found the deck to be on fire. We grabbed nothing but ourselves and ran outside to call 911. The house would have burned down if my husband hadn’t have grabbed the neighbor’s hose and put it out himself. VERY scary. and certainly not all of our possessions were inside the house, but I completely understand the feeling of getting out and saving what’s important (yourselves) first. Honestly, I didn’t even think to grab my camera or my computer or even my purse. My son was sitting in front of the house in his underwear because I didn’t even grab any clothes for him.

    That being said, the owners of the house didn’t leave instructions for ash disposal (though we should have known better), or tell us where to locate a fire extinguisher, and their garden hose was locked up in their shed. Their fire detectors worked but we had already been awakened by the sound of the fire.

    Our experience can’t really compare to yours at all as we were very lucky, but it does have us very aware about the dangers of fire in our own house. When I first read what happened to you and your family, I really felt awful for you. I hope that you continue to mend and you’re able to put your home and your lives back together very soon. Wishing you the best XOXO

  28. Thank you for your kind words. Thank you for reminding us all to make safety a priority and for giving us information on how to make things easier if it should ever happen in our own home.
    I will pray for you and your family, that you can rebuild quickly and regain some sense of calm and normalcy in your life and that you can once again, share your knowledge and beautiful photos with us. I always learn so much from your posts. God bless

  29. Thank you for sharing your story, your strength and your courage. I know it must be so very difficult to reason with the forces that have caused such trauma, but you seem so resilient! Thank you also, for the advice. Although we have some of those things implemented we do not have a fire escape plan for our house (rented) or a fire proof box or safety deposit box. All these things seem extremely important now.

    I need to get on this ASAP!

  30. Erika, my thoughts were with you and your family ever since I read about the fire. You indeed are a brave soul and I have nothing but admiration for you. I cried when I was reading how your son went back for grandma and was so relieved that everybody was OK.
    So many of us are lulled by the false safety of everyday routine and we procrastinate with making plans and preparing for the worst.
    But your experience taught me not to pretend that these things happen only to other people and I started slowly to organize our life “just in case”.
    I am an immigrant, and so is our oldest daughter, who was born outside of the U.S. The youngest one is a Type 1 diabetic, insulin dependent. The documents are in the two fireboxes. Photos are in the “cloud” in Dropbox. Insulin, meters, snacks, and blankets are in the closet next to the front door. We have 2 fire extinguishers, one inside, one in the house.
    I am so grateful to you for writing this comprehensive post. It will help immensely anybody who does not know where to start. I have not thought of so many things, and you made me realize all that needs to be done.
    Thanks, again, and stay strong. There are so many people, known and unknown, that support you and think of you.

  31. Hi, I happened upon your blog today and my goodness it took me back to that horrendous day May 23, 2008 when we too, lost our home in a fire. It certainly was a mind numbing experience and one that will haunt us forever. However, things really do get better and in time you will have that ugly memory behind you. We were in a rental home for 1 and half years which at the time seemed an eternity. I too, remember making those content lists and trying desperately to remember all that our home contained. We were given a lump sum for clothing and food, but everything else was listed separately. We have been back in our home since October 2009 and absolutely love our new home. It is really our sweat and tears that built this house…no, we did not actually build it, but we picked our everything single item down to the color of grout for the floor tiles. It is a huge amount of work and time invested in choosing tile, rugs, flooring, door knobs, etc., etc. but in the end the house turned out beautifully and it really does feel like our home. My word of advice to you is that while they are rebuilding your home, be there, everyday! to make sure they are doing what your want done!

  32. Dear Erika,
    Thank you for sharing your painful experience and we are so sorry for your loss. Wishing you and your family a lovely holiday with many beautiful new memories.
    You all are in our thoughts and prayers.
    Judit & Corina

  33. My heart aches for your family and the lessons learned. Some thing as tragic as a fire certainly can remind you how blessed you truly are though. I hope that you and your family can find the joys of the true spirit of Christmas this holiday season.
    kind regards, jennifer

  34. This really touched me. My heart goes out to you and your family. My sisters home burnt to the ground the day after Christmas a few years ago.(just escaping with their lives the dog woke them from their sleep he gave his live) I intended to do all the things you have mentioned. I completed some of them others, like video taping items, I never have. In January I will finish what I started. Thank you for sharing and God Bless you and your family as you rebuild.

  35. I remember reading and commenting on your first blog post about the fire right after it happened. It touched me – as it did many people – and you were on my mind for some time.
    But then daily life continued to happen and I stopped thinking about it – until last night. I had a dream about you; I don’t remember much about it but you were on my mind when I woke up this morning. I couldn’t recall the name of your blog and I thought maybe I’d google it this morning.
    First, I hopped on my own blog’s stat page to check things out, and (!) there was a referral link showing up from your post to mine. Someone must have clicked the link from the comment I left on your other blog post so many months ago. And there you were.
    Not sure what that means, if anything at all, but still I found it at the very least coincidental and intriguing. And here I am, leaving another comment and reading about fire prevention. I hope there’s not a reason I need to be reading this post at this particular time, but if there is then I’m glad to be here. And I enjoyed reading it; it’s clear in your writing that it’s not an easy time yet you’ve found hope and strength all the same. Thanks for sharing and I wish you and your family all the best.

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