The house two doors down from ours burned this morning. Alisa woke up thinking that someone was walking in our fenced yard in the pre-dawn darkness. A minute or two later, we smelled the scent of campfire and burnt rubber, then heard a woman’s voice in the darkness calmly talking to a 911 operator.
She told the operator that the third house down 18th Street from Market was on fire. Puzzling the math and geography out in my head, I realized that she could easily have been referring to our house. I looked out our back door and spotted the fire. I got onto a neighbor’s back porch, next to the burning building, where he was spraying the fire with a garden hose.
The front of the house looks better than the back. So when we get the street view, although there are broken windows and a pile of damaged materials, the structure appears to have survived unscathed.
But look at the back. A hole in the roof, a deck gone missing.
The fire today triggered a number of systems, their component pieces spinning and whirring throughout the morning. There were the half dozen fire trucks with accompanying crew lined up along the block.
All the house residents got out, eventually; the first, in whose room the fire supposedly started, taken away in an ambulance. There were several police taking statements, arson investigators, transit officials blocking traffic. Dozens of neighbors showed up to watch; I probably met more this morning than any other day in the last two years.
Two on-air reporters, along with camera operators, filed stories on their morning shows.
Our district supervisor arrived and placed several calls to the city bureaucracy to ensure the city shoveled away the charred contents that the firefighters dragged out (after a fire in the neighborhood last year, the trashed items sat on the street for days); neighbors were especially worried that the house would sit abandoned in disrepair indefinitely. A small team of Red Cross staffers arrived to help the residents navigate paperwork and figure out what to do next. They dropped off a couple of cardboard animal crates in case we came across either of the two cats that lived in the house, Yo-yo and Magic.
The morning’s efforts were a kind of municipal immune response: inflammation, a flood of treatment to stop the problem and keep it from spreading, and then a temporary scabbing over as wooden boards were nailed over the windows. Recovery would be the logical next step, though word is that the insurance might be in arrears, which would compound an already complicated situation.
But another analogy seems appropriate. As I write this, I can hear the whine of circular saws cutting through more wood to be used boarding up and stabilizing the house. Before even the Red Cross showed up this morning, a man in a pressed yellow shirt and slicked back hair with a small portfolio tucked under his arm stood nearby. A neighbor and I thought he might be an insurance representative, but he never approached, he only observed. Soon a tall man in quilted jacket and jeans, also appeared, slowly moving closer and closer to the victims. Then a short man wearing a brown Carhartt jacket who walked right up to them. Then a man in a polo shirt. They all carried black leather portfolios. A few more showed up; some seemed to be working together.
When I was researching a long article on earthquakes in the Bay Area, I remember in particular one detail of an expected post-earthquake scene. After the Big One, contractors and speculators will drive through neighborhoods looking for damaged houses, presumably either to make a bid on a job, or make an offer outright on the property. After seeing the man in the quilted jacket tell a Red Cross agent that the man in the Carhartt jacket was being very aggressive, and they should really do something about him, I thought of this scenario. They seemed to be competitors.
“They’re board-up guys,” that same Red Cross staffer told me later. In other words, contractors, who want to get the job hammering sheets of plywood over the broken windows and doing whatever else is needed in the short term. “When there’s a fire,” he added, “it’s like an ecosystem. The wolves come around and circle the little rabbit. I try to keep them at arm’s length from the victims.”
Although somebody’s got to secure and seal this otherwise gutted house, it sounds like the construction version of ambulance chasing. (We’re piling one analogy on another today.) And so, maybe wolves, maybe vultures. But even vultures have their niche in the ecosystem.