In the event of a house fire, getting everyone out safely is the priority.
But after people and pets are accounted for, shock begins to give way to reality as residents watch their homes burn and realize they left their cellphone, wallet and keys inside, that they are barefoot and have only the clothes on their back.
They start to think about the medication they must take every six hours and the important documents inside a filing box.
Then their minds wander to the irreplaceable, such as baby pictures, a wedding dress or an end table made by a great-greatgrandfather.
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These are some of the items that people commonly ask firefighters to retrieve or that firefighters instinctively look for when working to salvage people’s possessions, but “What’s important to one person may not be important to another,” said Modesto Fire Department Battalion Chief Randy Anderson.
This was evident for new Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District Chief Matt Daly at one of the house fires he worked at his previous department in Illinois.
The female resident wanted firefighters to get her shoes. Not just one pair of practical shoes to get her through the long night ahead because she’d run out of the house barefoot, but her entire shoe collection.
Daly didn’t know what brands or how expensive they were, just that “they were fancy shoes” and there were dozens of them.
“Here are these fireman covered in soot and junk and they are carrying out boxes of high heels,” he said.
Some of them might have felt a little silly but the shoes were important to the resident and brought her comfort, Daly said.
Even the remnants of an item can have that effect. Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Capt. Zack Gardner went to a chimney fire some years back where the resident asked him to search for his grandmother’s ashes – they’d been on the fireplace mantel.
Gardner carefully searched through the debris and found small green pieces of ceramic urn and a fine ash different than the charcoal ash from the house fire.
He scooped up what he could in his gloves – it had bits of wood and insulation in it – and brought it outside to the grandson.
“That little bit he was pretty excited about,” Gardner said.
Most firefighters have things that are special to them that they look for when doing salvage work, Gardner said.
If there are children involved many will ask the parents if the child has a favorite toy or blanket, something familiar and calming they can bring them.
Gardner likes to look for Bibles. Not Bibles tucked away on bookshelves or in drawers, but if he finds one on a nightstand or bed – one that appears to be used often – he will bring it out to the resident.
“I’ve seen people get teary-eyed, even big strong men,” Gardner said.
It’s not just that the items were saved but that the firefighters recognized the sentimental value in them.
Also during his career in Illinois, Daly said, his crew was the first on scene assisting a neighboring agency with a house fire when some of the firefighters noticed an American flag hanging on the front porch.
Daly said they got the flag and folded it into the traditional triangle out of respect.
A few days after the fire, Daly said he received a letter from the neighboring agency’s chief thanking the crew for saving the flag and expressing the family’s appreciation.
It turned out the flag was given to them by a family member, a war veteran who served in Afghanistan.
The items firefighters salvage needn’t be expensive or even have sentimental value. Anderson points out that renters without insurance will have to pay to replace everything that is lost, so firefighters do what they can to protect couches and chairs and anything else that will help them start over.
Firefighters’ first priority is protecting life, followed by containing the fire; then, even as they battle the blaze, they start salvage work.
Salida Fire Department Capt. John Alberti said firefighters will push couches together in the center of the room and put items in the middle before covering them with tarps.
He said they will cover as much as they can before they start pulling down ceilings and poking holes throughout the house, which makes a huge mess but is necessary to ensure the fire is completely out and not smoldering in the attic or inside the walls.
After that, “If you can bring that one item or that one picture to them, that seems to make the most difference to them – and honestly for us, too, because a house fire … is the worst emergency of their life ... and I want to be able to bring some peace of mind to them.”