Our house almost burned to the ground this past Wednesday.
As my wife and I were preparing for bed, we were unexpectedly startled by a loud, urgent knock at our front door. The dogs sleeping by the woodstove roared to life, and little jolts of adrenaline began trampolining off my adrenals.
I turned on the porch light and went to the front door and opened it to a gray haired man I’d never seen before. He was a little out of breath and his eyes were wide.
“Your chimney’s on fire,” were the first words out of his mouth. I stepped out onto the porch where I could look up onto the roof. Flames, five and six feet high were leaping into the air from the wooden chimney surround on the roof. My first thought upon taking in that image was, “Oh shit! The house is going to burn to the ground.” This was not a helpful thought. In response to it, my adrenals now sent bucket brigades of adrenaline all through my body. In the process it completely “closed down my thinker” (a process with an actual neurophysiological basis, it turns out).
Words still managed to come out of my mouth, however. They were the words of a helpless child about to go into a profound freeze response. “What should I do?” I managed to ask the stranger in front of me. “Call 911,” he said. “Do you have a hose?”
Encouraged to Mount a Triumphant Response
We probably have a half dozen hoses all around the property, all covered with bonnets though, to keep the pipes from freezing. I raced to the first hose nearest the front door. No water came out of the nozzle. I tried the hose on the other side of the house next. No luck there either. I could feel a sense of panic once again beginning to mount.
I paused and took two long exhales in an attempt to convince my brain all would be just fine, even if the house did burn to the ground. My wife was busy getting Bodhi, Archie, Emmy, Gracie and Olliebear to safety, and neither of us were in any real danger at this point.
I then walked rapidly around to the rear of the house to the hose bibb we’d been using to keep the dog’s water bowls filled. Success! Now I needed a ladder to get up on the roof. Off to the wood shed through the pitch black night to pick up the ladder I store there.
Triumphing by Rote
Up on the roof, I had to rely on memory to steer me clear of pipe vents and darkened skylights and other trip hazards. I got to the chimney, fully ablaze, the metal cap and protruding stove pipe glowing red. I opened the nozzle on the hose and to my surprise, this first dowsing substantially knocked down the flames. I sprayed even more intently now, aiming the hose at the places where the remaining flames were leaping highest. The Good Samaritan below had also managed to find a hose that worked, and now he too was throwing water up from the ground. Within three or four minutes, just as I could hear the firetruck horns turning onto our street, the fire pretty much came under control.
I continued to dowse every glowing ember my wife on the ground was pointing out to me until the first fireperson – a woman – made it up onto the roof. And then happily, I turned my hose over to her.
In spite of my own initial disorganization, with great help from a Good Samaritan and Social Neuroscience’s Golden Rule, I turned out to be the hero. I climbed up on the roof in the dark and didn’t fall through a skylight, and took “triumphant action.” I had the fire knocked down before the first fire engine got onto our road. All that was left for the fire crew to do was the mop up. Just before they left around midnight, I put one dog (Bodhi) on a leash and he and I went for a 20 minute trot to clear the glucocorticoids out of my system as much as I could. It seems to have worked. I managed to get some sleep, and the next morning I awoke fully ready to get on with the business of repairs.
The Golden Rule to the Rescue
What was interesting to me about the whole episode (later, the next day) was how my brain shut down almost completely when the passing motorist knocked on our door and announced that our chimney was on fire. I looked up at the roof and saw flames shooting into the sky and immediately had this image of the house burning to the ground, which made my body freeze and cognitive processes majorly disconnect. I had to ask the Good Samaritan for direction. His “more organized brain” (it wasn’t his house in peril of burning to the ground) simply gave direct instruction. Asking that question brought my own cognition partially back on line and I then went to work deliberately and methodically. I made my way around to the house, searching until I found a hose that worked, took baby steps across the roof to insure I didn’t stumble over a gas or plumbing vent, and then started hosing down the flames. As soon as the first spray from the hose actually worked to kill the flames, I could feel my stress levels drop. With that observation and the sound of the fire trucks approaching, it was clear: the house was NOT going to burn to the ground.
Big out-breath – a community that included my wife rescuing the animals, firemen and women, a Good Samaritan and a social neuroscientist with increasingly organized brains all firing action potentials in concert, had worked together to save the day! We were all heroes.