Fire as Teacher

July 30, 2008

My family had one of those experiences last night that will surely stay with us for a very long time.  Our summer vacations to Northeast Harbor, Maine are always jam-packed with family and friends who converge on the same town every summer for a lot of good times.  Last night’s experience was new and different.

On Monday night we were nestled all snug in our beds in our house at the end of Main Street, the town’s modest commercial center consisting of a market, three restaurants, the newspaper store, a wooden toy store, a couple antique shops, and a mix of galleries amd boutiques.  At around 2:30 a.m. on Tuesday I was awoken by a bunch of yelling outside.  My initial thought was that it was some of the boisterous college students who come into town each summer to work in those stores and restaurants, but a glance across the street proved me wrong.  I saw fire pouring out of the roof of Colonel’s Bakery, the place my four kids and I have breakfast most days.  I called to my wife who came running to look out the window with me.  My 8-year old son heard us and came out of his room, too.  We walked out the front door to the edge of Main Street where we had a front row seat to a riveting show.  The first fire truck had just arrived and people were running down the street, knocking on doors and calling up to windows of the apartments that sit atop most of the retail stores.  Within 15 minutes, there were no longer flames visible and it appeared that the fire was under control.  I ran inside to get my 10-year old daughter whom I thought would want to be part of an historic experience.  She came out and everything appeared very much under control.  I was afraid I had waited too long and that she had missed all the excitement.

Turns out I was wrong.  Not much later, a propane tank somewhere behind the restaurant (apparently the fire was more intense in the back, where we couldn’t see) exploded with an enormous boom, launching burning embers 200 feet into the night sky and into our front yard.  Recognizing that the fire had more room to run and that there was a real risk to our family, we decided to wake the our two younger kids and bring them to my in-laws a mile away.  We scrambled to gather clothes and kids and irreplaceable things like stuffed animals, digital cameras, baseball card collections, computers, and photos hanging on walls and sitting on surfaces.

Rather than retell what happened over the next 15 hours, I suggest you check out my photo stream on Flickr.  Suffice it to say that the fire would not quit.  It just kept burning despite hours and hours of water fired from at least five different 6-inch hoses.  It expanded into the adjacent buildings — Wingspread Gallery and the Joy Building — and by the end of today, it had claimed them, too.  All three buildings were demolished late this afternoon, about 15 hours after the fire had started.  Our house did not sustain any damage (credit goes to the wind who was graciously absent today) and we moved everyone back in this afternoon when we felt the danger had passed.

This was eye opening to me as a father.  I didn’t anticipate how traumatic this could be for children who have not been desensitized to violence and tragedy the way many adults have.  Why were my kids so strongly affected?

  • They had never seen a real fire.  Certainly not in real life and probably not even on television.  This color of the flames, the sound of breaking glass, and the stench of the fire were all overpowering.  Don’t assume they won’t be scared and give them the opportunity to talk about it.
  • They were attuned to our concern.  In deciding to evacuate the house, they heard “you are in danger” and this was definitely unsettling for them.  We have always promised to keep them safe and secure and they wanted to know what might have happened.  I tried to emphasize that we were never really in danger, but that we love them so much that we wanted to take every precaution to prevent anything bad from happening to them.
  • The Colonel’s was their private dining room.  They ate there all the time, they knew the waitresses and the menu, they frequently ran over ahead of me to reserve a table.  They are feeling the loss in a very personal way.  We are encouraging them to think about how cool the “new” Colonel’s will be when we come back next year.

Our kids seem to confront all their fears just before we turn off their lights at night and tonight was particularly difficult.  Each child wanted to talk about the fire (funny — each commented independently that they wanted to share the story with their teacher and/or write about it when they get back to school in September), wanted to rehash the story, wanted to tell us that how sad they were that we wouldn’t be able to have breakfast at Colonel’s. My parents had a house fire 10 years ago and lost almost all of their personal possessions.  It was a horrible tragedy and that was the first time I learned that a fire could be like a death where survivors go through various phases of mourning.

Today I learned an important parenting lesson:  Children do not have the sophistication to recover from this type of trauma as quickly as an adult might.  Our contexts are dramatically different.  Adults know that “all good things must end” — an idea not easily comprehended by a child who sees the world through ingenuous, optimistic eyes.  A more difficult question is whether to force that reality on your children or shield them from it for as long as you can.  I tend to favor the second option.  Our kids will have plenty of time to learn life’s hard lessons.