The street was full of uncoiled fire hoses. The fire fighters broke through a window to direct gallons of water on the fire that had started in the basement and made a hole in the roof to allow smoke to escape.Submitted photo

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On Monday afternoon, October 10, I was in downtown Evanston, looking for a belated birthday card for my brother when my neighbor called to tell me that Cynthia’s house was on fire, and that “I think she’d appreciate your being there.”  Cynthia was our next door neighbor, across the alley.  This was the second time there had been a fire at that townhouse. Several years ago in the middle of the night, someone had tossed a lit cigarette or similar into the garbage bins that were alongside her wooden fence. The ensuing fire burned down part of the wooden fence surrounding her back garden, but thanks to the Evanston Fire Department, avoided her home.

Now the nightmare had arrived. I parked a block away, due to all the people and vehicles near Main Street and Sherman Avenue.  Police cars and fire trucks from Evanston and several surrounding communities blocked Sherman Avenue between Main Street and Washington Street, and more fire department vehicles were in the two alleys leading from Sherman Avenue east to Custer and west to Elmwood Avenues.  As I approached Cynthia’s place, a two-story brick townhouse, the fire fighters were breaking through a basement window to direct gallons of water on the fire while flames and black smoke rushed out into the blue October sky.  Neighbors and concerned passers-by stopped to ask about the fire and about the townhouse owner, Cynthia. 

The street was full of uncoiled fire hoses, either in use or ready to be pulled into action. I crossed the street, stepping over one of the hoses, and it suddenly hissed and filled with water; I was glad to reach the safety of the other side. The aerial ladder truck on Sherman Avenue near Main Street was being used to check the roof tops of the three townhouses. Deputy Chief Bryan Scott explained that the reason the firefighters made a hole in the roof of the burning townhouse was to allow the heat and smoke to escape.

Cynthia’s townhouse was one of three townhouses in a row, and although all were affected, only one actually caught fire, only one was left with charred beams in the basement, floors that were no longer 100% safe, and belongings that were either burned or water damaged.  The other two townhouses suffered serious smoke damage, enough to require the families in both to vacate. For the townhouse farthest away from the fire, the cleanup work could be done in about two weeks; but for the family in the townhouse next to the fire, cleanup might require two months or more. The toxic smoke residue needed to be removed from all items and surfaces in both townhouses, the walls washed and possibly repainted, and repairs made where fire had gotten too close.

When the Fire Department gets a fire call, according to Deputy Chief Scott, they have a list of designated contractors to board up the house that are contacted on a rotating basis.  After the Fire Department leaves, the contractor boards up the home to protect it from weather and vandalism. This is all taken care of without the owner’s having to do anything. Other board-up vendors were at the fire, and although they did not approach the owner, they would have if no one had stopped them. “Ambulance chasers” might be an appropriate name.  It is fortunate for any fire victim in Evanston that the City has a designated policy so owners don’t have to think about this practical aspect of protecting what’s left of their home.

Firefighters were everywhere – in the alleys, on the roofs, up and down ladders, putting out and controlling the fire.  Cynthia was safe but her two Maltese dogs were still inside the townhouse. When the firefighters found them, they tried to resuscitate them but without success.

Everyone – professional and non-professional – came together to support and assist the fire victims. The Chaplain from the Evanston Fire Department spent his time with Cynthia as she learned of the death of her dogs. Two volunteers from the Red Cross were present to assist all three families, providing money and small bags with toiletries, and staying in touch with the families to offer other services.

When Cynthia was cold, one neighbor brought over a bag of cuddly socks, scarves, and jackets; another neighbor brought over hot tea and energy bars; and another neighbor ordered pizzas for everyone.  Everyone offered their help with “Call me if you need anything!”

A fire is a terrible thing to happen to anyone, much less a friend or neighbor. It totally changes a life. The physical element that was home, the belongings, all cease to exist. One has to rebuild, start from scratch, every decision is a new one, one that requires thought and effort. It’s a beginning but an unanticipated one, an unwelcome one. A nightmare. 

Moving through this nightmare was made easier by the support and care from the many that were there, professional and non-professional alike. There are many neighborhoods like ours and, hopefully, we do not have to experience a nightmare to come together and show our concern for each other.