In the wake of the fires that swept Southern California in late October, I wanted to share my experiences and lessons learned when my own apartment complex went up in flames in December 2006.
To give a little background, I lived in the Paradise Garden Apartment complex in North Long Beach. On Friday, December 8th, I came home from work to fire trucks and flames. The story going around that evening was that a woman was cooking and threw water on a grease fire. Later that night, the fire led every network news program and the cause was reported as arson because 12 separate units were on fire when the fire department first arrived.
I later learned that two women were cooking in a back unit on the first floor and started a grease fire. It quickly got out of control. They ran to the rental office in the front of the complex to report it, leaving their door open. The fire got into the ventilation system and quickly spread through the entire 150 unit building.
The next day we were told that the building was gutted, especially the 3rd floor. After worrying about the extent of the damage all night, the fire department finally deemed the building safe enough for tenants to enter the following day for ten minutes to retrieve important belongings.
If you ever find yourself in this kind of situation, the most important thing you can ever do is to keep a case packed with all your important documents inside and ready to grab at a moment’s notice. You might also consider scanning these items and storing them online. Either way, make sure you have the following in your fire preparedness kit:
~ All insurance policies
~ Copies of your credit cards (front and back)
~ Copies of utility bills (phone, internet, cable/satellite, gas, electric)
~ Copies of your driver license and/or passport
~ An extra set of personal checks
~ Copies of lease/rental agreement or mortgage papers
You’ll need your insurance policies for obvious reasons. You'll have to contact your insurance carrier and file a claim. Believe me, it’s much easier to contact them from numbers on the policy documents than to try to look them up later from another state. Although they’ll still be able to locate the policy, it’s a good idea to keep your policy number handy.
You’ll want copies of your credit cards and utility bills for the same reason. If you need to cancel your cards, you’ll have the phone numbers in front of you. You’ll certainly want to call all your utility companies to confirm that those services have indeed been turned off or you might later receive a bill. They tend to be pretty understanding if you explain that your residence burned down, but why waste that energy later when you’re going to need it to deal with many other issues.
It’s a great idea to keep copies of your identification handy as well. When they let us back in the building the next day, we had to prove that we lived there. Everyone trapped in the building that day had to escape over their balconies because the hallways and stairs were engulfed in flames. Having this kit with your ID near your escape route will allow you to grab it on the way out.
You’ll want an extra set of checks in your kit because you’re still going to have expenses and you’re going to want the paper trail especially as you deal with clean up companies. Even if you’re unable to get to your checkbook, you’ll still have access to your checking account via the checks. This is the other reason you want to have copies of your credit cards. If you don’t have to cancel them, you can still use the number for internet purchases that you may need to make in the meantime.
Finally, make sure you have copies of your lease/rental agreement or mortgage papers in this kit. Especially in the case of renting, you want have to have written documentation of your landlord’s responsibilities in the event of a fire or similar emergencies. Make sure you have documentation of your security deposit in case he or she shortchanges you as mine did.
Going through a disaster such as a fire is devastating enough. But if you keep a Preparedness Kit such as the one I described above you’ll take quite a bit of the strain off yourself. Even if you don’t think about it in your rush to escape danger, keep it in a safe box so it’ll be more or less intact when you or your clean up company are cleared for reentry. You’ll want it to be handy. If the fire department only gives you ten minutes to gather important items you want to make sure you have all of these documents.
Until next time, let patience have her perfect work.