Off-Site Backups, Planning Aid in Fire Recovery

By GREG BOCK, The (Altoona) Mirror | November 2, 2018

It was early afternoon, the day after Thanksgiving in 2006, when Mark Nale walked into his den and saw the flames that – despite the family’s frantic efforts to put out – would destroy their Port Matilda, Pa., home.

“It’s a life-changing event,” Nale said of the fire and the task of rebuilding from scratch. Looking back, Nale said there were a few things he and his family could have done before the flames broke out to make the process of putting their lives back together easier.

Nale, 68, said knowing what to do if there is a fire is one piece of advice he would offer people, along with having fire extinguishers that work.

“And not those really tiny things,” Nale said. He recalled how the family initially tried to get water on the flames – that started on the floor of his den – with buckets they filled from the faucet. Nale said that was “stupid” considering they had a koi pond outside that they could have scooped water from much, much faster. The fire spread faster than the faucets could fill their buckets.

It got to a point that he realized they were not going to put out the fire and had to get out of the house. The volunteer fire department was on a training detail and 20 minutes away, he said, and the blaze burned down the house and their garage.

“We ran out of the house without our wallets, without our keys,” Nale said.

Putting plans in place so everyone in the household will know what to do in the event of a house fire, such as planning escape routes and picking a meeting spot outside, is also crucial. What most people don’t think about is, what would happen if they find themselves outside their burning house with nothing but the clothes on their backs?

Nale said one of the biggest things he can suggest people do in this digital age is to back up their files using a cloud service.

“I had an external hard drive that I backed things up on, but that doesn’t help if your house burns down,” Nale said. Although the fire started in his den, where the main family computer was located, the flames still destroyed the hard drive he used for backups that he kept in another room.

Nale, an outdoors writer and photographer, now uses a cloud service to back up files, but he is selective about what files he saves using the free service with its limited storage space.

Extra space can also be bought, but Nale uses his cloud-based email to send himself documents and photos he wants to keep, giving him more free storage space and also giving himself an easy way to search and find items later.

Articles and pictures he wrote and shot before the digital age were saved as paper clippings and slides and were stored in the den. He said the slides were lost forever within five minutes from the intense heat.

Data up in smoke

Also lost were phone numbers, account numbers, documents and other pieces of information, something Altoona Fire Department Chief Timothy Hileman noted is a common situation people find themselves in after a fire.

“It takes a little longer to start the recovery process,” Hileman said of not having necessary information somewhere people can access it after a house fire – such as a fire safe. Many times, families don’t even know what they have in the house, which makes it more difficult when filing insurance claims.

“Go around the house and take video of everything,” Hileman suggested, pointing out that, with cellphones, it’s easier than ever to record a simple inventory of the family’s belongings.

In every house fire, one of the first things that happens apart from the firefighting is utility companies are summoned to shut off electricity and natural gas services. While initially done for the safety of the firefighters and to help save the home, it’s also important homeowners don’t hastily have power or gas turned back on until the structure is inspected for hidden damage that could lead to another fire once services are restored.

“If you turn it back on, it could lead to another incident,” Hileman said. “A lot of times, people don’t realize the damage that is done when saving the structure.”

Water damage is an example, he said, and while internal components can be replaced, it’s important homeowners have the building checked before utilities are turned on. Firefighters also try to minimize damage to the contents of homes by pulling tarps – called salvage covers – over furniture on the ground floor when putting out second and third story fires, Hileman said.

After the fire is out, many people don’t have a plan for where to stay.

“The Red Cross can help, but they can only help for a couple of days,” Hileman said. “As part of a preparedness plan, have a backup plan.”

Hileman said a lot of help is available after a fire, and it wouldn’t hurt for people to look into what is available through local organizations, although it’s not something anyone wants to think about.

“It’s not something people want to prepare for,” Hileman said of becoming homeless due to a fire.”Ultimately, the goal of any disaster is to get back into your home.

Check on policies

Allstate Insurance Agent Josh Gibson, whose agency is located in Duncansville, said along with the video of the home’s contents – especially important for unusual items, collections and high-value belongings – homeowners should always make sure their policies are up to date.

“A lot of people do renovations or put an addition on their home but don’t update the policy,” Gibson said. That can lead to problems in the event of a fire because if the claim was written for their home prior to the changes, then that is all that is covered.

Most policies include inflation protection and homeowners should also consider the cost of replacing their home versus what it is worth at the moment or when they took out their policy. While rates are higher for replacement policies, homeowners won’t find themselves short if they lose their home and are looking to rebuild, he said.

For John Turiano, whose home was heavily damaged when a fire engulfed his neighbor’s home on the 100 block of Sixth Avenue on Sept. 19, getting his life back on track has meant renting an apartment after spending a month sleeping on a couch.

Initially, his insurance company thought the home was repairable, but after it was discovered the damage to one side was more extensive than it looked, the company decided to declare it a total loss. Turiano said he had lived alone in the house and often considered selling and moving, so when the insurance company paid off his mortgage, he decided to rent instead of buying another house.

“This was just to basically get me relocated,” Turiano said of his new apartment. “I’m not saying I’ll stay here forever.”

Turiano said he had a fire safe containing documents such as car titles and birth certificates, and compared to his neighbor, who lost everything, he “lucked out.” Most of the contents of his house were not damaged, and he was able to move his belongings out of the damaged home, which along with the two others damaged in the fire, are slated for demolition.

Turiano said his wife, Terri, from whom he is separated, let him sleep on her couch while he took care of finding a new place and dealing with the house.

“I don’t know what I’d do without her,” he said. He also said he doesn’t know where he’d be if his neighbor, Bill, hadn’t awakened him when the fire broke out. He said he has tried to make light of the situation and compared to his neighbors, was fortunate.

Nale and his family rebuilt after their 2006 fire, and he said when designing the new house, he and his wife, Gail, were conscious of using materials that wouldn’t burn, including ceramic tiles and Nu-Woll insulation. Instead of replacing their woodburner, Nale had a masonry fireplace added that burns hot for shorter periods of time each day and then radiates heat – which eliminates creosote buildup in the flue and the risk of fire.

Since the fire – the cause of which remains unknown – Nale said they’ve also eliminated curtains, don’t use candles and have no wallcoverings – such as wallpaper – that are flammable.

“We had the opportunity to start over so we said, let’s do this,” Nale said.

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