7 Life Lessons from a House Fire


What can life threatening situations teach us? I explore just that in this article, which shares 7 life lessons from a house fire, along with how you can apply these lessons to your search for the perfect retirement location.

Before finding and moving to our perfect retirement location in 2022, my husband and I lived for six years in a 120-year-old house in a small Iowa town we’d moved to by mistake. We had noticed many old houses around town that had caught on fire or burned down completely. But you know how it is. You see things happen to other people and you think they won’t happen to you.

Until they do.

My husband and I had just finished breakfast. I was heading upstairs to my office when I noticed an odd smell. Then I looked up to see flames inside the bathroom exhaust fan, which were beginning to rain down onto the floor.

I knew I couldn’t throw water on an electrical fire. So, I panicked, yelled “FIRE!” at my husband, grabbed my cell phone to call 911, and spent what seemed like hours pleading hysterically with the dispatcher – who kept getting our address wrong – to hurry.

Even though the fire department was six blocks from our house, they took what felt like an eternity to get there. Thankfully, they arrived in time to put out the fire before it spread beyond the bathroom.

Read on to find out what this scary event taught me about life, and how you can apply these 7 life lessons from a house fire to your search for the perfect location to retire!

Your priorities need to be clear.

When faced with a house fire, you need to act fast. You don’t have time to dither about which belongings to take with you. Once we realized our house was burning, our only concern was to get our four cats and ourselves safely out of the house.

The temperature was dangerously cold, with a wind chill well below zero.

While I called 911, my husband deftly rounded up all four cats (anyone who has tried to herd cats knows this is no easy feat) and piled them into our car – getting horribly clawed in the process. We jumped into the car, blasted the heat, and backed out into the driveway so we didn’t all die in the garage of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Then, we watched and waited for the firefighters to put out the fire.

It wasn’t until later that I realized my cell phone and our cat’s medication, which she needs to take twice a day, were the only belongings we had with us. We were both still wearing our pajamas, and I had only flip-flops on. I hadn’t given anything else – even possessions with sentimental value that can’t really be replaced – a second thought.

People can be awesome.

First and foremost, the firefighters were amazing because they ran into the house and put out the fire quickly and thoroughly. I seriously don’t know how firefighters can run into burning buildings, but I’m so grateful they do!

Hats off also to the woman from emergency management. When we talked to her, we didn’t know yet how much damage the fire had caused or if we’d have to take her up on her offer to call the Red Cross. She was kind and compassionate at a time when we really needed it.

The fire also prompted our neighbor to offer towels or blankets if we needed them. This was an unexpectedly nice gesture only because they called the cops on us last summer after the high school kid we hired to mow the grass veered a few inches over our property line.

Which brings us to the not-so-awesome people, and the third life lesson from a house fire…

People can suck.

It’s horrifying the way unfortunate events can bring the creeps out of the woodwork.

After the firefighters put out the fire, we went inside to assess the damage. The house wasn’t safe to bring the cats inside yet, so we left them in the car in the driveway with the engine running and the heat cranked up.

Minutes later, my husband went downstairs and noticed the rear car window was partially open and one cat was sticking her head way out. Apparently, a woman we don’t know who walks by our house every morning whether it’s 100 or -30 degrees outside had snoopily inserted herself into the situation.

Worse yet, she got all indignant and self-righteous when my husband politely asked why she’d rolled down the window when all we were trying to do was keep our cats safe and warm until we could secure our house after the fire.

Then there were the ambulance chasers.

Mere hours after the fire, my husband ran to the grocery store to pick up new toothbrushes. Two people – one of the checkers and one of our neighbors – gave him the hard sell about hiring their family members to fix the damage. We livedin a dinky town, so everyone knew we’d had a house fire. But all they really cared about was making money off our misfortune.

In general, I noticed a disturbing lack of empathy and compassion when we told people about the house fire. Their attitude was like, huh, no one was maimed or killed? (Yawn.) Is that all you got?

While I understand the past year has been trying for everyone, pandemic fatigue is a sorry excuse for not caring about what happens to other people. Having empathy and compassion for others is more important now than it’s ever been.

Life can be cruelly ironic.

The fire started in the main upstairs bathroom, which we’d remodeled exactly one year prior as part of getting our house ready to sell. Even after we’d decided to postpone our move due to the pandemic, that beautiful new bathroom made it somewhat easier to endure the disappointment of having to stay in Iowa longer.

That bathroom, we’d (half) joke, was our sanctuary.

Then, within minutes, our sanctuary was destroyed. What’s even crazier? With the exception of a portion of the adjoining hallway ceiling, the bathroom was the only room in the house that sustained fire damage.

You really can’t make this stuff up!

Stay calm and carry on.

The house fire was a stark reminder that shit happens, and you just need to do your best to roll with it.

When the fire broke out, we’d been starting to look at when we could finally make our move. But, having to deal with cumbersome insurance bureaucracy and rude, inept contractors pushed our timeline to move farther out – again. (We’d already delayed our move the previous year because of COVID.)

Our entire upstairs did not have any electricity because it had been an electrical fire. For three months, we slept downstairs in our living room, worked at our Formica kitchen table, and took sponge-baths in our kitchen sink.

It felt like we were squatting in our own house!

Not only that, we had to navigate the destruction zone every time we needed to use the bathroom. Like most old houses in that town, we had bats in our attic. And since the bathroom had no ceiling, venturing upstairs after dark felt like we were living in a horror movie.

The only thing that kept us sane was knowing we were going to get out of Iowa and have a life again. It was just going to take a little longer than we had hoped. In our mind’s eye, the Pacific Northwest sparkled like the Emerald City in the near distance. Just knowing it was there waiting for us made it all more bearable.

Cats aren’t the only ones with nine lives.

The house fire was one in a series of events in my life where I narrowly escaped serious injury or death. I’ve been very nearly struck and killed by lightning, caught in a flooding house, and involved in two freaky solo car mishaps that I survived only because there was miraculously no highway traffic either time. Thank you, guardian angels!

Life can turn on a dime.

It’s not lost on me that we could have all been seriously injured or killed in the house fire.

If the fire had broken out when we were asleep, we would likely have died. And if it had broken out while we were on our weekly jaunt into Iowa City for groceries, our beloved cats would have perished, our house would have burned to the ground, and we would be homeless.

Perhaps the biggest lesson from the house fire is that life is tenuous. You never know what might happen.

Which is why it’s so important to seize the moment. If there’s something you want to do, but have been dragging your feet about, don’t wait to act!

Shift the search for your perfect retirement location out of neutral and into gear!

Why procrastinate any longer? Get one-on-one consulting/coaching support, one-of-a-kind planning and evaluation tools, and a professionally-researched, interactive Custom Place Prospect Report to smoothly guide the search and move to your perfect retirement location! Learn more about the PlaceFinder Program here.

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About the Author

I founded Your Place Finder in 2017 to help retirees and almost retirees like you anticipate and overcome the pitfalls and challenges – and reap the rich rewards – of finding the perfect location to move for retirement.

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