A fire at my neighbor’s house

The power went out around 5pm in southeast Redmond yesterday, including in our neighborhood, the English Cove HOA.

OMG EMERGENCY! Said the children. Who couldn’t get on screens. Oh the humanity!!!!!

My wife, Katie, and I were already feeling lazy about dinner—it’d been two straight months on lockdown since returning from the Canby, Oregon funeral of my wife’s aunt on 14 March 2020. That was just a day or two before both Washington and Oregon banned events of more than 50 people.

Preparing three meals a day at home, week after week, was wearing thin. Especially because our two kids, Quinn (8) and Joe (5) were picky eaters and demanded different meals.

We had placed an order with Rocky’s Empanadas just a few minutes before the power went out. It’s a takeout place that we have passed at least once a day since we moved from Seattle to Redmond in 2015. We’d never been to Rocky’s before, but with so few restaurants open for takeout, and the menu items hit-or-miss, we were looking for something different. So we finally placed an order on Rocky’s website just to get some variety. And the option to buy some empanadas frozen to eat later? So much better than the make-shift, leftovers-wrapped-in-a-tortilla lunches I had become accustomed to over the past couple months.

The pickup was a little chaotic. Their lights were out, of course. And I couldn’t enter the place: they had placed a desk blocking their door. You could open the door, but you really couldn’t get in. I definitely couldn’t see in the back. Still, we were lucky—our empanadas had just come out of the oven when the electricity cut out.

Back home, with our poor, internet-deprived children playing out of doors for the first time in ages, we had a delightful dinner sitting in our driveway with a bottle of wine. The empanadas were amazing!

About ninety minutes later, around 6:30 pm, the power came back on. Within minutes, our kids had reapplied Krazy Glue to their eyeballs and pressed their screens tightly to them. The evening was proceeding per lockdown usual (fine, we had been in Phase 1 for two weeks, but it wasn’t much different from lockdown, except emotionally).

And then the smoke detectors started blaring. I jumped up on a chair to push the “stop it” button but it didn’t work. I ran through our entire townhouse looking for… well, anything amiss. It took a bit to realize it wasn’t our smoke detectors. It was the heat alarm system that was connected to the other three townhouses in our building.

Then a knock on the door: it was Kalyani from next door, telling my wife, Katie, there was a fire. Katie yelled to me upstairs “FIRE!” I ran downstairs, a bit confused, I had checked the entire house and there was no fire, but… you know. Get out, right?

Kalyani was in a bit of a panic, and all of four of our kids were completely freaking out. But… I figured it couldn’t be that big, based, of course, on no evidence whatsoever.

I broke open the fire extinguisher by our door, went into their house and saw a maybe five-foot high column of flame billowing up from the right front burner of their range. Lots of black smoke, but not a big fire. Pulled the trigger and… Of course, the extinguisher didn’t work: I forgot to pull the pin. I was already coughing from the smoke, and couldn’t see anything other than the fire. I went out, pulled the pin, went back in, squeezed the trigger for maybe two seconds, and the fire was out. Still tons of smoke and I could feel the burn in my lungs.

Outside, folks were wondering if we should call the fire department. I figured there was no point: the alarm was connected to Redmond FD, and a station was just across Fall City Road.

Then Kalyani asked if we should go in and turn off the range. Oh. The range was on? Right. Yes, I had just put out a fire on her range. Of course it was on. Duh. I grabbed an N95 construction mask from my garage and went back inside Venkat and Kalyani’s place (why didn’t I grab the mask earlier?). The range was molten red and the metal pot on it was melting. No point going through all that smoke to turn off the burner, though: I told Venkat we should just kill the power at the breaker box in their garage. When we got to the panel, the microwave breaker had already tripped. I killed the range, and then figured I’d just kill the power to all the kitchen appliances. Why not?

Then the Redmond Fire Department showed up. Couldn’t have been more than two or three minutes from when the alarm started. Must have been a non-event for them, I guess. The fire was out.

We all stood outside for 20+ minutes, watching the firemen open up Venkat and Kalyani’s place to let the smoke out, and make sure there was no fire smoldering in their kitchen.

Then one of the firemen pulled me aside and did a quick health check. He said I seemed fine, but recommended I go to the ER to make sure I didn’t have carbon monoxide poisoning. He was concerned about the huge lungfuls of smoke I’d inhaled during my three trips into my neighbors’ townhouse. Of course, Katie had already told me I should go to the ER—a suggestion to which I was predictably dismissive. I accept and embrace what I know Katie must have been thinking at that moment: “MEN!

I grudgingly agreed as the fireman and my wife ganged up on me. I would visit the ER at Swedish less than a mile away. Katie wanted me to take the car—she wanted to drive me, frankly. The fire truck was blocking the driveway so we couldn’t get the minivan out, and… I’m a dude. So… I rode my Vespa.

Listen, I’m a guy. It’s genetics. I don’t ask for directions, I don’t go to the doctor, and if I need to go to the ER, I’m bloody well going to get there on my own even if I’ve got a limb falling off. Riding my Vespa so that I could get checked out for a condition that might make me dizzy and pass out? RAWR!

Besides, I hadn’t been on my Vespa in months.

All the doors at Swedish were locked shut. Just the one door to the ER. There couldn’t have been more than a dozen cars in the parking lot, either.

The guy at admitting said I could go to the ER or to Urgent Care. Well, he said that after he handed me a mask and asked me several COVID-19 related questions and handed me a face mask. One of the questions was “do you have a dry cough?” My answer “well, I just did inhale a ton of smoke.” We both laughed.

When he said “ER” all I could think of was the bill we got when Katie had an ER visit a while back. I can’t recall what it was for, but I do remember it was serious business. And I have fantastic health care through Microsoft, so the real cost must have been insane. I chose Urgent Care. Cheaper! I’m a dude!

There was no one there. I can’t ever recall going to a medical facility whose waiting room wasn’t at least half full. But I was the only person there that wasn’t an employee. Still, I had a 15-minute wait. It would’ve been wrong to be seen immediately.

The physician’s assistant checked my oxygen levels and listened to my lungs. She said I could go to the ER and get a blood test and an x-ray if I wanted, but… she didn’t think it was worth it, considering how little time I was exposed to the smoke, and how I wasn’t really showing any symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. Sounded good to me.

When I got home, Katie had both kids in bed with her. They were stressed out, and nothing was going to get them to sleep except their mom.

But… kids are kids, and Joe was poking Quinn, even in a king-sized bed. So Quinn came to Joe’s room, where I’d been sleeping recently. Katie had been sleeping with Joe because of how her stress-induced Shingles (i.e. Coronavirus-induced Shingles) were keeping her up at night. Her tossing and turning would surely keep me up too, but Joe sleeps like a log.

And while I didn’t feel an ounce of adrenaline or worry or fear when I went into Venkat and Kalyani’s place to put out the fire, when I finally got home from Swedish I was all wired up. I lay there next to my daughter for at least thirty minutes before she succumbed to sleep. Me? I didn’t fall asleep until hours later, well after midnight.

As I tried to unwind while the rest of the house was asleep, I couldn’t stop thinking about how our two families stood as we watched the firemen close things down.

For two months, Venkat, Kalyani, Katie and I had consciously prevented our daughters, Quinn, Manushri and Pravasti, from playing together. We had kept at maximum distance from each other in the rare times we were in our joint entryway, and kept even further away when we exchanged a few words.

It wasn’t just about following the rules: less than a week after the funeral in March, one of Katie’s aunts tested positive for COVID-19, and several other members of her family exhibited symptoms. We had all spent plenty of time together that weekend.

The fire was a strangely normalizing event despite its abnormality. All eight of us stood, shoulder-to-shoulder, along with a few of our neighbors. All thoughts of social distancing and COVID-19 were gone in the face of a fire.

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