Skip to main content
Personal Insurance

Beauty from Ashes: The Lessons I Learned From My House Fire

By August 31, 2020No Comments
lessons learned from house fire

Below, our Agency President, Cheryl Nabell, shares the lessons she learned from her house fire that occurred almost four years ago.


I will never forget the moment we received the call from our son that our house was on fire. The forty-five-minute drive back home seemed to last an eternity, and all I wanted was to see my children and pets safe. Fortunately, they acted wisely and quickly and were able to get out before the house was engulfed in flames, and by the time we arrived, the amazing firefighters had the fire under control. Most of that afternoon and the following days are a blur, but I remember someone telling me that from that point on, my life would always be defined as “Before the Fire” and “After the Fire”, and that advice has proven to be so true.

It is hard to believe that it has been almost four years since the fire. Now I am securely in the “After the Fire” portion of my life, and we are blessed with a beautiful, new home. I believe my experiences have made me a much better insurance agent, and I hope I have also become a better person. I hope you never have to experience your home burning, but in case it helps anyone, I would like to share the five main things I learned during my journey.

  1. Stuff is Just Stuff:   Along with the actual house burning, almost all our belongings were either burned or damaged from smoke and/or water. Since the fire started in our master bedroom wall, everything in that room was reduced to ash, and my husband and I were literally left with just the clothes on our back. Throughout the house, very little was salvageable, and while I loved my stuff, I quickly realized that there was very little I really needed.
  2. Smoke Detectors are Life Savers: I remember how annoyed I used to get when the smoke detectors would start beeping to remind us to change the batteries. Who knew that such a small device could be so annoying, but it could be the most important piece of equipment in your home. Before the fire was detected, our bedroom was filled with smoke, but the smoke detectors only alarmed when the bedroom door was opened. Our home was built in 1980 well before smoke detectors were required in bedrooms. Since we slept with our bedroom door closed, if the fire had started about six hours earlier while we were still in bed, it is unlikely we would have survived. So PLEASE CHECK YOUR SMOKE DETECTORS ON A REGULAR BASIS, AND IF YOU DON’T HAVE THEM IN EVERY BEDROOM, INSTALL SOME TODAY!
  3. DOCUMENT ALL YOUR BELONGINGS AND SAFEGUARD YOUR IMPORTANT PAPERWORK: I used to advise my homeowners insurance clients to take pictures of their furniture and valuable items, and I still think that is a good idea, but you should really take pictures or videos of EVERYTHING. You will probably remember all the large and important items in your home, but if you lose some or all of your contents in a fire, you will be asked to inventory everything you lost. Take it from me, it is very difficult to remember how many socks, towels, toiletries, spices, etc. you had, but those are the things that really add up to a surprisingly large amount. I recommend walking thru your home with your phone and videoing every room. Open the closets, drawers, and cabinets, and you will be amazed at how much you have. Then make sure you store this documentation in a secure remote location. Also, I should mention here how replacement cost value works for contents loss. In most cases the insured is asked to inventory all the items which were lost or damaged and provide an original purchase price and date purchased for each. Then the insurer will give the policyholder a depreciated total value, and as new items are purchased, the insured must send the receipts to the adjuster and is given the difference between the depreciated and replacement cost values. This is an exhausting task, and it takes some people years to complete it. Therefore, being able to recall and document what you had is VERY important. As for paperwork, try to keep copies offsite and the originals in a fireproof safe. After our fire, we had to scramble to recreate birth certificates, auto titles, and passports because our small fire safe did not provide the protection we needed, and we did not have other copies, but fortunately, we did have an offsite copy of our one irreplaceable document – my husband’s German birth certificate. I honestly do not know what we would have done if we had lost that.
  4. Invest in a Quality Insurance Policy with an Agent You Know and Trust: Around our house, we have a saying that “You don’t always want the cheapest oysters”. Think about it…. the same goes for insurance. Even though it was a catastrophic fire, our home was not deemed a total loss, and I learned quickly that a partial fire loss is one of the most difficult claims to adjust, but I was fortunate that I had appropriate limits and coverages on my policy and that I am with a respected agency who worked on my behalf to get the claim settled. I love a bargain, and few things make me more excited than a SALE sign, but insurance is not an area where you should cut corners.
  5. People are Wonderful!: I saved this for last because it truly is the best lesson I learned. When we arrived at our home, it was already surrounded by friends, and even after the smoke had cleared, they continued to surround and support us in so many ways. I was truly humbled by the kind gestures of friends, family members, and even strangers. In the beginning, I was uncomfortable accepting assistance, but it was such a comfort to have so many of our needs met, often before we even realized them. Our kids were given gift cards to pick up food, and cases of water and blankets appeared on our doorstep. Meals and accommodations were offered. Friends gave us clothes and gift cards to buy items we needed. We were displaced from our home for twenty-two months, and during that time we lived in five different houses with our two dogs. If you’ve ever had to find a rental with dogs, you’ll have an idea of how difficult this could have been, but we never had a problem because we always had friends looking out for us and helping us find great places to live. During this whole process, people would often comment on how well I handled it, but the truth is that most of it was handled for me by wonderful people in my life.


So now “After the Fire”, I am still startled when I hear a siren, and I always pray when I see a fire truck;  I pray for the safety of the firefighters and the lives of whomever called them. I look for ways to help people experiencing tragedy, and I realize that they do not always know what they need, but I at least try to help. When my insureds have a claim, I take it personally, and while I cannot always control their outcome, I do everything within my power to assist them. The picture above is of my family on our front porch a few weeks after moving into our new home celebrating our first Thanksgiving. We are very blessed to have received beauty from ashes in so many ways.