Four months and 11 days ago, David Minton, 61, and his wife, Mandy, 58, pulled into their driveway after running errands. Mandy remembered looking at the clock in the car. It was 10:04 a.m. when their garage exploded.
Since then, the Mintons have been overwhelmed piecing their lives together. While rebuilding on the same lot, they have been living in a rental home, must leave work for insurance meetings and still grieve over the loss of sentimental items.
“You can’t just automatically reset yourself in the style that you’re used to,” Mandy Minton said. “You have to rethink everything.”
Home fires are more common in the winter as people warm up their wood stoves and plug in their electric heaters. When a fire happens, it can have long-term impacts on physical and mental health, finances, employment and property. The Mintons and other fire survivors might never reach pre-fire recovery, but they can share strokes of good fortune and planning that made their disasters bearable.
“The next day, you wake up, and you’re thinking, I need to take a shower, but then you think, I don’t even have my hairbrush,” Mandy Minton said. “It just hits you.”
There were 387,000 residential fires in 2018 in the United States, according to the Insurance Information Institute. That’s about 7,750 house fires per state or about two house fires per every 1,000 adults living in America.
The structure fires caused $11.1 billion in property damage in 2018, up 3.7% from $10.7 billion in 2017.
The recovery process is more difficult for people with fixed or low incomes, who are aging or who are uninsured, said Bill Werner, director of the American Red Cross for the San Juan region.
“Senior citizens are on a very tight budget. They just won’t recover,” Werner said.
48 hours after the fireIn the first moments after a fire, a system of support shifts into gear.
An American Red Cross disaster team member shows up with toiletries and hundreds of dollars on a client-assistance card. They replace immediate needs, like medicine and eyeglasses, and provide stress and trauma resources. The organization also connects residents to a network of volunteer organizations.
In the first 48 hours, insurance companies take charge – if the person has insurance.
“If you lose everything and you don’t have insurance, (the cost) is on you,” Werner said. “You’ve just lost all of your belongings. What do you do?”
In the weeks after a fire, a person could lose his or her job if he or she can’t get to work, he said, especially while trying to replace burned clothes and work with insurance.
“You become resigned to it,” said Karen Perkins, 64, whose home southeast of Durango burned in 2018. “At one point, you just go, ‘Well, OK ... no I don’t have any of my own clothes.’”
Four months after the fireThe Mintons’ house near Durango burned nine months after they completed a five-year renovation process. Now, they are doing it again.
“Our whole life is fire-related right now,” Mandy Minton said. “It totally consumes everything – all of your time and your thoughts and everything.”
Their experience with their employers, fire investigators and insurance company was positive. In fact, they had an insurance audit just before the fire, which was fortunate because the insurance money would not have covered costs otherwise, they said.
“I can’t even imagine how someone would go through the same thing we’ve gone through if their insurance company was fighting them,” David Minton said.
The couple’s community gave “amazing” support. No one was near the explosion. Their insurance covered the costs.
Some of the fire’s impacts are still fresh. David lost a dove ornament that belonged to his daughter who died. Mandy lost her father’s photos and belongings. His funeral was four days before the fire.
“At first, I couldn’t talk about it without crying, and then I was OK,” she said, grabbing a tissue to help with her tears. “For me, it’s a dual thing because it’s the exact same timing as losing my dad.”
Two years after the fireTwo years after Karen Perkins’ home was destroyed by fire, she finally spent the first night in her new house.
She and her children were up late playing cards when a chimney fire took hold in January 2018. It took 20 minutes for her home to burn. The belongings that survived sit in a small, cardboard box.
“We’ll never replace everything because a lot of it was sentimental stuff,” she said. Baby books burned. Family photos are gone. She lost her grandmother’s antique piano. “They’re irreplaceable, but the important thing is ... we all got out alive.”
For her, the fire is no longer difficult to discuss, just matter-of-fact. But she is still working with insurance, and she is still trying to fill her home with appliances and furniture.
The most difficult part was cataloging her belongings for the insurance company. The company wanted to know how many cans of green beans she had, how much they cost and when she bought them.
“I don’t know when I bought stuff, especially furniture. I had no idea,” she said. “It was probably the most difficult part of the process.
Perkins considers herself lucky. Her employer accommodated her needs. She was awake with her kids, instead of asleep, when the fire started.
“I had the support of my family, my neighbors, my friends,” she said. “There’s good people in this world, and I like to focus on the positive.”