I have an incredible story for you today from a dad who watched his house burn to the ground in the Tubbs fire that killed over 40 people and caused $1.2b in damages in California. He’s a personal finance blogger, too.
He blogs over at DadsDollarsDebts.com and was gracious enough to give me some insight into his life after losing everything…everything, that is, except what’s most important: their lives.
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It has now been 8 months since our house burned and life plans changed overnight during the Tubb’s fire. While I would not wish this tragedy on anyone (we were quite lucky to not have lost our lives, which is not true for 22 people in our community), it has been both traumatic and uplifting.
Traumatic with a big T. Traumatic in that, overnight, the life we had cultivated and the image in our minds for the future, vanished. It vanished in an all destructive, purifying force. The stability we had built went up in smoke. Poof….gone…overnight…without warning, along with our possessions.
Many in the FIRE community make decisions to dramatically change their lives. Smaller home, living in an RV, not eating avocado toast. You know, the normal, wacky decisions made to retire in your 20s or 30s. I support these moves. But to have the decision made for me was a completely different story. It is the opposite of what the FIRE community aims for.
I am not whining or complaining. I am just telling you how I feel.
I am grateful. Grateful to be here and safe. Thankful that someone knocked on our door at 2am and that my dog woke us up (she has been eating human food ever since).
Grateful that I am not living in a war-torn country. I often think of those innocent people who were trying to make a living when the Syrian civil war started. Or of my own parents who were quite comfortable in Iran in the 70’s, then suddenly with a regime change their lives were turned upside down. These people have it harder than me, but there are days where I still have it hard.
I am grateful that my interest in personal finance, moderatism, and FIRE have allowed me to not only cope with this tragedy but to catapult my path to financial independence. I am now closer to my personal goals and am prioritizing how I want to live.
How does one make hard lemonade?
Life definitely threw me lemons, but I now feel liberated…truly liberated in so many ways. Not to the point where I can stop working (I am more of a FatFire kind of guy), but as a hard reset in life. A very hard reset. Like when you had to whack your NES and blow into the console to play Super Mario Brothers.
One big example is my home. My wife reminds me that the house we lived in, the one I worked hard for (the doctor house), was a big point of stress for me (and thus us).
It cost me $1.2 million to buy this 3,300 square feet home with a million dollar view. I would walk around wondering why we had 3 rooms we never used. Ridiculous. Plus, I was paying $5,500 a month in taxes, insurance, mortgage, and HOA fees for this privilege. It was more than I wanted, but 11 months before the fire, I bought it based on peer pressure and expectations.
There is no way I could have sold the home, either. The appreciation after 11 months would not have covered the real estate agent fees let alone enable me to make a profit. So I was stuck. But…then….Poof! A big old wildfire. Now I have no home, no mortgage (thank you insurance company), and no possessions. Talk about a hard Reset.
Being financially in control alleviates a ton of stress
We all have different reasons we aim for financial independence. They are varied and all equally correct. For me, it was to ensure I will have time with my family and not stress about finances ever again.
While I am not financially independent, over the years I have improved my financial life. I bought appropriate insurance policies, saved money, and paid down debt. When the fire hit, I had a positive net worth and on my way to having my non-mortgage debt paid completely. So we were doing okay.
Having my financial ducks in a row was huge.
Let me say that again, HAVING MY FINANCIAL DUCKS IN A ROW WAS HUGE!
Huge because we had a small emergency fund we could draw down on immediately. We needed cash to buy clothes, underwear, food, gas, etc. Plus, we needed money to put down for a rental to live in. Without an emergency fund, that would not have happened.
Huge because I was insured, and well insured. As the money came in I was educated enough to run the numbers and figure out how to use the money. Should it go into a savings account? Stocks? Pay off debt? Should I pay down my mortgage and take out another loan or keep the one I have? All of these questions needed answers, and I was not hit with Analysis Paralysis.
Some of my colleagues were not so lucky and are still having trouble navigating the system. They have $700,000 sitting in checking accounts as opposed to a high rate savings account. Simple things like that make a big difference.
Having a job is a good thing in times of tragedy
Let me clarify, having a job is a terrible thing if they force you to show up the next day after a tragedy. You need to work with some understanding people to be happy.
If your employer is understanding and gives you a week or two to regroup through this tragedy, then you are fortunate. I had a job and a steady paycheck despite having nothing else (except for my wonderful family…they are my everything, after all).
I could rely on the paycheck while dealing with insurance. This is not the case for others. I know people who lost both their home and their paycheck. That is brutal.
Many are forced to move out of Santa Rosa because it is now unaffordable and the number of jobs decreased. My pizza delivery guys, 2 months after the fire, told me he was evicted from his apartment and now needed to move 40 minutes outside of town. His landlord lost her home in the fire and they were going to move into the apartment.
I think renters ended up worse off than homeowners. If the rental did not burn down, then their insurance does not cover evictions. If the rental did burn down, their possessions may be covered and some living expenses but the cost of housing is now so expensive that they may not be able to find another property to live in.
Where am I now?
Literally the day after the fire, I drove up with my wife to Santa Rosa. I figured housing was short when we moved here a year ago and now would be much worse. To add to the stress, we had a dog which reduced the number of places that would rent to us.
We drove up by noon and literally went from apartment complex to apartment complex. We kept missing out. We would arrive as they were renting out their last unit. This was less than 36 hours since the fires had started! Craziness. I knew I wanted to stay in Santa Rosa and was determined.
Finally, we found a rental. It was a 2 bedroom, 2 baths and would be available in a week. Success. Well, the next week they called and said there had been a kitchen fire in one of their units and now our rental was occupied. They did have a 2 bedroom, 1 bath available so we took it. We were annoyed but grateful.
Turns out the complex was not so great. There were cops out to our apartment once a week. One night I watched them handcuff a person and search another car outside of my balcony. On call Christmas Eve, my parked car was trapped by cop cars. I had to find an officer to move his car so I could get to the hospital.
So we kept looking and luckily, 3 months post-fire, we were able to rent a 3 bedroom, 2 bath ranch style home in Santa Rosa. It is not as grand as our prior home and has no million dollar view, but we are grateful. Plus, we learned that we really do not need much space for our family. This will come into consideration when we decide where we want to live next.
I am grateful to be working, grateful for insurance and life in general, but I would be lying if I said everything is fine. It is not. I have episodes of depression. Episodes of anxiety. Some sleepless nights. None of this existed pre-Fire – but is my reality now.
I suspect over the next 2 years it will get better. Once the house is built and my interactions with insurance are done I will feel more settled. My financial situation is much better now thanks to insurance money. I will be appreciative of that forever.
I am living more deliberately, trying to buy less and focus more on my family. I am decreasing my cell phone use and writing more. These are all good things. Therapeutic things. I suspect the effects will continue as my internal wiring is forever changed. Some due to the FIRE community, but mainly due to the physical FIRE in my life.
Who would have thought…
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.