Driving back from the store in near-darkness at 3.30 on Friday afternoon, the intensity and simultaneity of thunder and lightning all around us make me realise that it’s not often I’ve been directly beneath a storm. Or not one like this anyway.
Stanley wants to know if lightning can hit people, cars or houses. Yes, but it usually goes for the tallest thing in the area, so it’s more likely to hit big buildings like churches or skyscrapers. Why does it want to do this, and does that mean lightning has a brain? I’m saved from embarking on an ill-fated effort at scientific bluffing by a particularly palpable thunderclap as I turn into the drive.
Thank goodness for remote-controlled garage doors. Pulling into the garage is like emerging from a car wash. The kids don’t seem too alarmed by any of this, but I notice Carla elects to stay with me while I unload the groceries; a rare hint of dependence from her. Then the garage, lit only by the headlights of the car, is suddenly bathed in a bluey whiteness that can only have come in through the ground-level vents, accompanied by an almighty crack that would make the Dalai Lama use the F-word. I certainly do, both as a noun and as a participial adjective. Carla is startled, but holds it together at least as well as I do. On our way through to the kitchen I see that the fascia of the blind in the playroom has fallen down, so I reckon the house has actually been hit. How cool is that?
It’s only when I’m checking email after putting the shopping away that I think I might be able to smell something odd. A search of the house reveals nothing. I try to ascertain if the smell could be coming from outside, perhaps from the palm that’s just dropped a perfectly healthy-looking branch in the front yard. But there’s no trace outside and it’s only noticeable in certain parts of the house. I have to do something, so I compose a facetious tweet. By the time I hit enter there is definitely, definitely a burning smell, as confirmed by my six year-old sidekick who has joined the team now that SpongeBob has finished. Oh, and there also seems to be a haze in the house. Another investigation ensues and this time we discover a wisp of smoke drifting out of one of the air conditioning vents. Time to call 911.
The operator is very nice. She advises me to get any pets out of the house. I point out that I don’t have any pets, but I do have children, and she tells me that they should come out too. Then she explains that she’s sent help but that it isn’t her that’s coming, so she can continue to take my details. I’m not sure why she feels the need to provide this explanation. Perhaps it’s down to how she imagines it works in England (“A fire you say? Bloody Nora, I’ll get my hat, but first tell me your date of birth!”) Or perhaps my comment about the children made me sound stupid.
No matter, because within 15 minutes an oddly reassuring bewailing of sirens precedes the arrival of three fire trucks, a paramedic unit and a cluster of smaller vehicles from Palm Beach County Fire Rescue. I watch four firefighters in full protective gear and breathing apparatus file into the house from which I have just removed my children. And then the reality of the situation hits me: this is going to wind up on the blog, and I should start taking pictures.
The advance party come out of the house and report that there is a burning smell and some smoke, but no indication of where the fire is, which is pretty much where Stanley and I got to about half an hour ago. They crank up the Big Ladder for a different perspective.
There’s nothing coming from the top of the house either. Having shut down the gas and electricity to the house, they take in heat-seeking equipment to look for hotspots. Shortly afterwards they announce they’ve found something and charge a hose.
Understandably, there’s now activity from the neighbours. Some decide that their dogs need to be taken for multiple walks past our house by different members of the household. Dogless neighbours resort to sweeping their front drives while staring in our general direction. But our new BFFs across the way go above and beyond, offering to take in, entertain and feed the kids, thereby saving Stanley and Carla from about 50 mosquito bites each. I intend to leave them there for only half an hour or so, but it ends up being nearer two and a half.
It turns out that the fire was in an air conditioning duct above what was the kids’ playroom, where part of the blind fell off the wall:
I decide that being a firefighter is an excellent career choice. Quite apart from driving otherwise rational members of the public wild with lust, they also get to resolve most of their work issues with an axe.
There’s a great deal of cleaning up to do because the air-conditioning system has pumped smoke into every room of the house, and a fair bit of construction work is required before the gas and electricity can be switched on again. Worse than that, permits have to be acquired from the city before work can even be started, let alone signed off. Until all that happens, we’ll be living in a hotel room courtesy of our insurance company. Still, we’ve been here over two months now; you have to expect the odd setback.