The house next door caught fire in January.
I wanted to be at work early that morning, so I scurried through the morning jobs and hustled my daughter out the door to preschool. I zipped back home and whizzed up a pumpkin smoothie for the road. I gathered up my things and walked to the office.
The smoke alarm must have been beeping as I walked between the houses, because twenty minutes later flames were pouring from the back of the house. Another neighbor called the fire department. Twenty-five minutes after that the fire was out, but the house was a ruin.
I wanted to post about it when it happened because this is the space where I think hard things through, and this was a hard thing. Another neighbor who works at the university sent me a midday email asking who lived in the little gray house near ours; she'd heard there had been a fire. Because she said "near" and not "next door," I thought she meant the little gray house that's kitty-corner from ours, the one that's occupied by an older single woman. When I walked home after my afternoon class I scrutinized that house from the first minute I could see it. No damage to the roof -- maybe the fire wasn't that bad. No damage visible from the front -- must have been confined to the kitchen. No damage anywhere at all that I can see -- must have been exaggerated along the neighborhood grapevine.
And then I turned my head to see my next-door neighbor waiting in her car with tears on her cheeks. The sidewalk was covered in ice, because the temperatures that day had been in the teens and the water had frozen rapidly as it rolled away from the house. I cannot convey to you the utter wrongness of the scene: the vinyl siding melted into sinuous ribbons, the roof with its gaping hole, the windows laid on the lawn like plucked eyes. "I'm so sorry," I gasped, with tears in my eyes.
I wanted to show you the pictures so we could say together, "No, that is not right." I didn't, because it would have been tantamount to posting my home address on the internet. But it shook me up to realize that the lead picture in the newspaper story was taken from my porch: the best view of the action was from our house.
They were insured; they're rebuilding. They're staying in a hotel so we only see them every now and again, but they seem astonishingly upbeat about the whole thing. Please pray for them, if you are a pray-er.
In this neighborhood where lots are small it could have been much worse than it was. It was a windless day, the fire department arrived quickly and responded efficiently, and so the fire didn't spread beyond their house. Ever since, though, I have wondered about the invisible effects.
My little vegetable garden sits right inside the property line. That's my neighbor's house in the picture there. The firefighters left a fair amount of broken glass in the garden. (Which is 100% fine with me. If you can fight the fire faster by leaving broken glass in the garden, then bring on the broken glass.) I'm wondering more about potential toxins in the soil, though. Burning vinyl is really nasty stuff. Is there toxic residue in the soil now? If I plant vegetables there this year, will I be feeding carcinogens to my children? My compost pile is in the back, also right on the property line. The prevailing wind here is from the west, which means that all winter the wind blew across the fire debris in their yard and then across the compost. I'm thinking that compost is probably destined for flowers only.
Do you guys have any thoughts for me? I called the county extension office but I haven't heard back.
I'm having second thoughts about posting this, because it is SUCH a minor concern compared to my neighbors' troubles. But planting season isn't far off, and it's been on my mind. That's really the only spot where I can grow vegetables. I'd be bummed to lose my garden space. I'd be more bummed to feed poisonous food to my family.