Up in smoke

Our lounge, Wednesday 17/08/11.

Where do I start? It's been a bit of a week. Or only a couple of days really I guess, but so much has happened in that time. Most important thing: we all got out unscathed. We have been lucky in so many ways that I've ended up counting my blessings far more than I have ended up in tears. Occasionally, though, I pause in my blessing-counting to thump my forehead against the wall in disbelief at my stupidity.

Alistair was already at work when I came out to the lounge just after 6.40am. I went straight through to my photography studio to check for an email I'd been waiting for. I hadn't been in there long when I became aware I could smell smoke - my first thought was that my computer was overheating. Then I heard a bang from the lounge and went to investigate. Cue a totally unreal scene, which of course I've been replaying over and over in my mind - our familiar, friendly old lounge, with a pillar of flame from floor to ceiling.

The kids were reading in their beds at the far end of the house, so as I reached for the phone I called to them that the house was on fire and we needed to get out. The poor things shot out the front door so fast, wearing just their pyjamas (and Wellingtonians will know how cold it has been lately!) and were right down by the letterbox by the time I next saw them.  I called 111 and thought of grabbing our little fire extinguisher and having a go at dousing the fire, but quickly decided it was beyond me. I headed to the front of the house too, pulling the hall door shut behind me, and then rang Alistair while using my free hand to gather up blankets, jerseys, shoes and a case full of insurance papers, and biff it all into a big pile on the verandah.

The fire engines arrived so quickly - we have a station very nearby in Brooklyn, thank goodness. Alistair pulled up as the second engine was arriving: he had screamed up the hill from the city, through the red lights with his hazard lights going. The firefighters reckon we were a minute or two away from flash point by the time they extinguished the fire. As you can see from the photos below, the flames were contained to one area of the lounge. But the heat and gases must have been phenomenal - the fridge and the microwave right at the other end of the room melted, as did plastics inside the closed pantry.

Dobbin, the gorgeous wooden rocking horse that Uncle Murray made for the kids, is fine apart from a slightly singed saddle - he is a family treasure and we are so relieved. The pantry is the brown door at the right of the photo above. The microwave and fridge are right down that end of the kitchen too - both melted.

The couch that was adjacent to the source of the fire.

Our beloved coffee grinder!

Incinerated plant, plus melted TV, DVD player, stereo and record player. The kids' DVDs from the library are fused into one pile, as are the three remote controls.

God knows what weird substances swimming towels from The Warehouse are made of, but this one thumbed its nose at the fire right beside it. The orange blob near the centre of the photo is the cause of the fire - Alexander's raincoat.

Shattered light fixtures above the dining table. Leather chairs all crispy on top, peeling art works on wall (don't talk to me about my beloved Trent Parke print!!), melted phone cradle on wall - luckily it lasted long enough for my phonecall to Alistair.

Well that's enough of that - you get the general idea. You're probably far more interested in knowing what I did that caused this fire. I have been procrastinating in getting to that part. I would never in a million years throw a piece of fabric over a lamp - you'd have to be a moron, wouldn't you? But for months Alistair and I have been hooking the hoods of the kids' raincoats over the edge of some tall free-standing lights, so the coats can dry in front of the fire. We then turn on only the room's central overhead light.

We were initially stumped as to the cause of the fire: it was clearly not from the firebox (which was still burning away happily in the corner of the room). The couches were all far enough away from the fireplace not to spontaneously combust. We wondered about the wiring for the free-standing lights, and then Alistair saw The Orange Blob, and it all clicked. I would have come out in the morning and flicked on both light switches without thinking. The jacket over-heated and ignited, then fell to the floor onto a pile of newspapers. Which were at the base of a tall curtain. Which was right beside the couch. Fire HEAVEN.

I did ask a firefighter whether stupidity would render insurance null and void, but the lovely man assured me that most house fires have some degree of stupidity involved.

On to the lucky parts. We all got out totally unhurt. We have a long and narrow house - if the fire had been too large for me to get past it to the children, I'd have had to go out the back door and around to the front door to get to them. It would have been locked, and I can't be sure I'd have thought in my panic to stop and collect the hidden spare key en route. Either go back for the key, or find something to smash the windows with. That end of the house would have been very hot and gassy by the time I was finally in: it's a terrifying thought that has had me in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. I also wouldn't have had a phone with me, so we'd have lost more precious minutes getting to the neighbours to call the fire brigade.

As it was, as soon as I saw that fire I wanted to get the kids out, of course. I never thought to go back and shut the door to the photography studio. I didn't initially realise how hot it had got in there, but now I see the varnish on my beautiful antique chair has bubbled, and an acrylic-faced print up on a high shelf has discoloured. My backdrop rolls are crispy and stained, my shiny new iMac seems to be stuffed and my flash is playing up. Unfortunately my favourite lenses were on the desk (and my two 5DIIs, although they still seem to be working) rather than insulated in my camera bag on the floor - each metre of height seems to have made a lot of difference heat-wise. All my studio lights were out on their stands, and have discoloured. I didn't try testing those - all my gear and the computer has gone straight to the shop for professional evaluation.

So the brakes have gone on, the shoots are postponed or cancelled, and I'm spending my days organising. Our insurers have been brilliant  - we had a loss assessor on site by lunchtime, which has made me think of all the poor Christchurch people who were still waiting for assessments months after the earthquakes. The specialist cleaners are in, our damaged belongings (and all the food in the pantry) have been itemised and taken away, the carpets have been ripped up and the builders and glaziers have already stopped in to check it out. It's all being taken care of for us really. We are living at Alistair's mother's house just up the hill, and may be here 6-8 weeks at worst. She is in Scotland for a few weeks, and our friend Dion, who was house-sitting for her, has been very welcoming to this family of four (and a cat) suddenly invading his space and kicking him into the tiny spare room.

People have been so kind, and I've only just got to the point where I can listen to them being supportive without getting all choked up. Thank you, all you wonderful people who have offered help, and my lovely clients, who have been so understanding about delays. Thank you also to my wonderful husband Alistair, who has been amazing through all this. Apart from his sense of humour, that is. He poured me a drink on Wednesday night and handed it to me, saying: "Here you go, Pie."


"Sweetie Pie. (pause). Or pyromaniac."


Moving on

Three sisters