It’s Real: The Galvanizing Power of Disaster

Early Friday morning, before the sun had even come up, my partner and I were jerked awake by the sound of the fire alarm going off. Both of us looked at each other, exhausted and annoyed.

“Do you think it’s real?” I asked him.

He shook his head, unsure. We’ve both been through so many false alarms in our building at all hours of the day and night. Rather than inducing a mild panic and ensuring that we get out as soon as possible, the alarm is often just an annoyance caused by some inept college freshman trying (and failing) to cook. “It’s really early,” he said. “Maybe…” I understood what he meant. Who was cooking something at 5:25 AM that had set off the fire alarm? Maybe there was a fire.

And then we heard a young man outside shouting, “EVERYBODY GET OUT! THERE’S A FIRE! EVERYBODY GET OUT!” He kept repeating himself over and over, shouting as loud as he could. My partner and I looked at each other, eyes wide.

“I can’t tell if he’s just some drunk asshole reacting to the fire alarm and joking around or if he’s seeing something we can’t,” I said as I sat up.

“We should leave.”

The guy outside kept shouting. We got out of bed, putting on warmer clothes, knowing that even if it was a false alarm we’d be stuck outside for at least half an hour. (A smart choice – it ended up taking close to two hours.) I grabbed my purse and my bug-out bag (which is woefully underpacked, but still better than nothing) and shoved my work laptop into my backpack. As I heard the first two firetrucks pull up, and then a third and a fourth, I felt my breathing hitch. More than one or two trucks means a real fire. (Unfortunately, I’ve been through enough real fires in my building to know.)

We and headed down the stairs. I smelled something burning and was glad we hadn’t stayed inside. Once we were outside, we saw probably a hundred people all staring in the same direction. As we turned the corner of the building, we saw it, too: flames pouring out the window of an apartment on the seventh floor.


It was a scary sight to see. Especially when, moments later, the glass in the open windows shattered dramatically and the debris fell to the ground in a flaming heap. Nothing else caught fire, thankfully, but as an enormous plume of gray-black smoke rose into the pre-dawn sky, I felt my heart catch. I hadn’t closed my windows. What if the flames spread? What if we did lose everything?

But I calmed myself once I realized that I’d lived through two other fires of similar magnitude, and my stuff and I had always been fine.

And for us, everything was fine in the wake of the fire. But two of the people who lived in the apartment – now a burnt-out, blackened shell – who were injured aren’t. I saw the pile of debris on the sidewalk growing as the fire department pulled it out of the building on my way to work. All their possessions gone, just like that.

My partner and I have been talking a lot about disaster preparedness recently, but money is tight. We pick up a few extra things here and there and split them between our bug-out bag (BOB) and our pantry. With everything going on across the world lately, in particular the huge number of natural disasters that have hit over the last fe weeks, I’ve been a lot more willing to spend any extra cash I have on a few extra cans of food. With earthquakes of varying strengths rippling around the Ring of Fire, including a few small ones closer to our home in San Francisco, the need to stock up has felt even more urgent.


But even still, there’s always this sense that you have more time. When a fire rips through an apartment right in your building, though, things feel a little more urgent. My partner and I have been talking more since yesterday and are going to be getting some supplies this weekend. I’m also planning on doing more research on what to do in the event that an actual disaster happens sometime soon.

That means that I’ll likely be posting more stuff about disaster preparedness and prepping, particularly for the apartment-dwelling crowd who can’t put together the kind of preps that everyone always recommends. I’m also planning on talking about other ways to prepare besides stockpiling, because I feel like if stockpiling is your only form of preparation, you’re limiting yourself. I’m someone who appreciates participating in communal networks of knowledge and help that comes in a variety of ways, and I believe firmly that no matter how much you stockpile, knowing that you can reach out to and rely on others is far more important.

In the meantime, please make sure your stove is turned off and you haven’t left your curling iron on.





6 thoughts on “It’s Real: The Galvanizing Power of Disaster

  1. Oh my goodness. I thought any building over a certain height had to have s sprinkler system. It terrifies me that someone else’s actions or misfortune could destroy everything I own. Im glad you and your husband were able to escape unscathed.

    1. I feel like we don’t have sprinklers because our building is super old. Could also be that because of the number of false alarms we have, the complex would likely end up stuck with a lot of people complaining about water damage.

      And thank you! We’re glad we made it out too. 🙂

      1. That’s one of my fears of living in a building that has them, lol. I know in terms of fire safety, nothing is better, but I always have that fear that they’ll just go off randomly though that’s extremely rare. I think older buildings don’t have to have them, but anything that’s built now does. Are the false alarms due to people cooking irresponsibly?? I think with sprinklers, only the ones set off will go off, but of course if you’re besides or below the person, then you’ll definitely have to deal with water damage.

      2. Yeah, we live right near a university, so a lot of the people in our building are first-time freshmen living on their own, and the vast majority of them have next to no idea how to do anything for themselves. Apparently even opening a kitchen window to let cooking smoke out is mysterious to them. -____-

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