My House Is on Fire!

By Judy Smith

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Watching our home burn, we could not have foreseen the blessings awaiting us.

One Monday night years ago, our family gathered for family home evening. After the preliminaries, our son Mark began his lesson about being prepared in an emergency. As the lesson progressed, we discussed what we might do in a flood, tornado, or earthquake. Then our discussion turned to what we would do if our mobile home caught on fire. For some reason this turned into a long, serious discussion. Finally Mark asked, “If you could take only three things with you, what would they be?”

He asked me to respond first. I said I would first want my family to be safe. Then I said I would want to take my family history book, which included many photographs and family history names we had worked hard to collect over many years. Finally I decided I would want to take my scriptures because I had put much effort into marking them over the years.

Other family members voiced their opinions, and my husband added that if he could get a fourth item, it would be our legal papers and tax information. The lesson had created so much discussion that we decided to continue it the next week.

In the following days we prepared for Thanksgiving and felt an especially happy spirit in our home, which was located on a 60-acre farm. I had just found out we were expecting a child after eight years of anxious anticipation, and we had recently begun building a new home we hoped to be into within a year. It was nice to be able to live comfortably in our mobile home until our new home was ready.

A Dreaded Phone Call

The following Monday began as any other day. I spent time in morning scripture study, then put a load of clothes into the washer. After a typical rushed and noisy breakfast, the children ran out the door to catch the school bus. I breathed a sigh of relief and prepared to leave for work at our local chamber of commerce. I looked forward to the time when I would be staying home for good with our new baby. Meanwhile I was working during school hours and was home with the children in the afternoon. I put the clothes into the dryer and got my coat.

My husband and I left together. As we walked out the door, I had an odd feeling come over me, and I walked back in to check the dryer one more time. It was set to run for an hour, which was normal. As I walked out the door again, I turned around and looked back at everything: a new sofa, our lovely china cabinet, the portrait of our oldest daughter, Christy. A flood of emotion flowed through me and I turned to my husband and said, “We sure are blessed. We have much to be thankful for.”

After dropping him off at the university where he worked, I drove to my office. About an hour later my secretary came in and said someone from the sheriff’s office was on the phone. I often took calls from city officials in my work, but even as I picked up the phone I knew something was wrong. The woman on the phone told me my mobile home was on fire and asked if anyone was inside. Fortunately no one was there.

I called my husband’s office and found he was teaching that hour, and I asked his secretary to find him and have him meet me out front. I grabbed my coat and shouted to the secretaries that my house was on fire.

As I drove to the university, tears welled up, and I realized that just two months earlier we had transferred our insurance to our new house. As I pulled onto campus I saw my husband running toward me. I moved over, and he jumped into the driver’s seat. Panic gripped me as we drove to our home. We had counted on the money from the sale of the mobile home to help us pay for our new house. I tried to stay calm, but while still two miles away we could see smoke billowing aloft.

Up in Smoke

We saw TV news trucks and fire engines blocking our drive and a large group of people who had gathered to watch. We jumped out of the car and just stood and watched everything we owned go up in smoke. My husband ran to the back of the mobile home and talked to one of the firemen. Soon the fireman was chopping a hole in our bedroom wall, where the fire was just beginning to burn. My husband reached in and pulled a large box of valuable legal and tax papers from the top of the closet shelf. Some were already burning, and he quickly snuffed out the flames.

Another fireman was chopping a hole in the kitchen wall, where my china cabinet was, and I watched my china and crystal, which I had spent years collecting, fall out and shatter on the ground. The fireman, a friend, walked over and picked up one plate that hadn’t shattered, dusted it off, and handed it to me. I held it tightly in my arms and thanked him.

Realizing we were in the way, we returned to our car to watch and wait for it to be over. Friends gathered around us. Neighbors and ward members poured in from everywhere. Within minutes we had offers of places to stay, food, and anything we immediately needed. One neighbor offered to take our children to her home after school. Another neighbor left briefly and came back with sandwiches and beverages for us and the firemen. Still another offered to organize a community program to get things we needed, and a ward member offered her home to receive the donations as they came in. I was overwhelmed at such kind and generous responses from so many people.

Our Hearts’ Desires

Finally the fire was out and the media left. Firemen poked through the ashes checking for hot spots. Suddenly one of them stopped. He had found something hard in the ashes and reached down to pull it out. It was a set of scriptures. All of our sets of scriptures were eventually found intact. The firemen were amazed as they handed them to us. I stood holding them, thanking Heavenly Father for that wonderful blessing. Then another fireman bent down and picked up a big book. It was my book of family history, full of photos and stories. I had wrapped it in plastic and laid it on a table in our living room. The table was gone, and the lamp on it was gone, but there in the ashes our family history book lay untouched, even to the plastic wrap still unmelted around it. The fireman, with tearful eyes, handed it to me and said, “This could only be the hand of the Lord.”

At that moment I felt tremendous love for Heavenly Father. We still had the most important things we’d agreed we wanted to save: our family, our scriptures we had carefully marked, and our family history. Tears formed again in my eyes, and all I could do was thank Heavenly Father.

Finally everyone left, and my husband and I looked at the ashes of what had once been our home. I looked at the remains of our clothes closet and found clothes inside that appeared intact. I reached out to take them, but they fell in pieces to the floor. We went to the store and purchased some coveralls and spent the rest of the day cleaning up the mess. As night came, we were exhausted. My husband’s sense of loss hit him hardest as he realized that, as provider, he had no way to care for his loved ones. We went to our neighbor’s home to pick up our children and took them back to see where our home had been. Then we accepted the hospitality of a ward member to spend the night.

Help Pours In

Later my boss found us at the ward member’s home and threw his arms around us and wept. He brought some clothing and money and told me to take as much time as I needed from work. My husband’s employer made a similar offer.

Soon clothing, sheets, towels, and appliances began pouring in. These blessings continued until there literally was no more room to receive them. A neighbor who owned some apartments gave us a key and told us to live there rent free until our new home was finished. We received many invitations to Thanksgiving dinner.

The stake organized a work project, and people we didn’t even know came from miles around to help us build our new home. One family even spent their entire Thanksgiving Day helping out. During the next few months there were many tears shed, and they were almost without exception tears of joy. I realized what it was like to be on the receiving end of service instead of the giving end. Feeling somewhat uncomfortable at first, I discussed it with a friend, who said, “Don’t deprive us of the blessings of service.” It appeared the entire community had responded, and the giving continued. We found ourselves with more clothing and nicer towels and linens than we’d ever had before.

Planning meals at first presented a challenge. I had to remember I no longer had anything on hand, not even salt and pepper. I started collecting a supply of basic commodities again. At times the challenges seemed overwhelming. It was often the small things that we missed most: a nail file, a journal entry I could no longer reread, the Christmas lists we’d made. It became a day-by-day slow rebuilding of lives.

Counting Our Blessings

Through it all we felt our blessings were much greater than our sufferings. Each night we would return to our apartment, gather the children around us, and thank Heavenly Father for our little family.

Christmas that year was remarkable. We had just enough money to buy a small tree for our apartment, but no decorations. On Christmas Eve we sang Christmas carols and talked about what was really important in life. We drove to our new home and thanked Heavenly Father for His blessings, then returned home for a good night’s sleep. When we arose in the morning, expecting to find our bare tree, we found instead, through the help of our landlord and a close friend, a room full of dishes and dolls and toys—all new.

As we look back now on the fire and its aftermath, we realize that as tragic and difficult as it was, the Lord blessed us in many ways. One of those blessings came from Church members. During the winter months the stake high priests quorum did the plumbing, electrical, and sheetrock work at the new house, and by March we were able to move in.

Even now we realize the things we own are not only temporary blessings but also gifts from Heavenly Father, who allows seasons of scarcity in our lives as well as of abundance. Out of such experiences we have learned much about appreciation, gratitude, and the fruits of loving service. We have become more aware of the good things of the world, such as beautiful flowers, blue skies, and birds. With our new perspective, we have also found our desire for worldly goods tempered and learned that it is easier to live with less concern for worldly goods. Most of all, we have learned to draw closer to Heavenly Father and to place our hearts on things of eternal value.

Illustrated by Gregg Thorkelson

Show References

  • Judy Smith is a member of the New Mark Ward, Platte City Missouri Stake.