Les Pompiers arrived before midnight — 3 large firetrucks and 2 smaller vans — with approximately 18-24 firemen and 2 gendarmes. Such a frightening event on the night of Solstice and it could have had an even more devastating results. Thank heavens for their prompt response.
We are in Normandy right now staying in one of the two stone gites (cottages) that the owner Polly has created out of old stone barns on the property. Polly and her two young daughters are across the Channel in England and we have been looking after her 2 dogs, 3 cats, and the cluster of buildings.
Shortly after 11:30 PM last night, we went upstairs to bed and Mark was already deeply asleep as I slid under the duvet. But something was wrong. I had gone to bed feeling quite uneasy after thinking I heard someone crunching around on the gravel outside. I realise now that what I had heard was the crackling as the fire took hold. And I can just about pinpoint when the fire really gained momentum because a few minutes after 11 PM, the wifi went off here in our gite. The power stayed on in the gites and the barn next door because we are on a separate power box, but the wifi was being broadcast from the big house.
I was just about to put my earplugs in and go to sleep when something made me hesitate. I held my breath and listened intently and within a minute I heard several loud booms. I shook Mark again and again quite briskly to rouse him from that deep slumber and told him that I thought someone was breaking into the gite next door. He listened as we both heard another loud boom and his feet hit the floor, he quickly slipped into his clothes, and I told him to be very, very careful. I put my robe and slippers on and was part of the way down the stairs when he came storming back through the door screaming, “The big house is on fire!”
I raced out after him into the pitch black night and as soon as I came around the corner of the large stone house, I could see an eerie orange glow lighting up the night. I stood there in the dark sobbing angrily because my British-based mobile phone wouldn’t go through to the fire department as Mark ran across the field to the farmer’s house on the next property, pounded on the door, and somehow communicated to the couple that the house was on fire and they needed to call the fire department. The wife understood what he was saying because, blessedly, she spoke a tiny bit of English.
As Mark was cutting back across the fields between the properties, he stumbled into an electrical fence and got a strong jolt. So he is dreadfully sore and aching today. And I abruptly stopped crying, ran back into the gite and upstairs, threw on some clothes, and began packing our rather large quantity of cameras, electronics and clothing in case the fire jumped the roof and our gite became engulfed in flames. Then we both went outside and stood with the neighbours, waiting for what seemed like a very long time before the first response crew arrived, and then watching the blue lights coming down the road, the courtyard fill with large red trucks, and men begin unfolding water hoses and spraying the house with soap saturated water.
The wonderful farmer and his wife from next door bundled up in warm jackets and brought over coffee, plastic cups, and cubes of sugar to serve the firemen. We went into the gite, figured out how to use the drip coffeemaker since we normally use a stove-top Italian coffee maker for our own daily use, and we took a second pot of coffee and a bottle of milk outside for top-ups for les pompiers.
It was almost 3 in the morning before the wonderfully efficient firemen finished their last walk through of the house, rolled up their hoses, and went home to their own warm beds. We are so grateful for their prompt response and their thoroughness in staying until every last place, both upstairs and downstairs and inside and outside, had been checked and rechecked. Mark asked if they were all volunteers and the farmer’s wife said yes — they were. How astonishing to see such a large turnout on that winter night from men who gave freely of their time and effort because they felt compelled to give back to their own community.
Here are shots of the damage that I took a couple of hours ago. We have heard from the firemen that the fire was within inches — INCHES — of entering the main house. It’s a huge place with lots of very flammable timber beams and it would have raced through there at lightening speed.
We are feeling quite shaky today, rather fragile to be truthful, but oh so grateful that we were here. The house would have burned to the ground if no one had called it in — and the farmer’s wife told me that they were watching television and had the volume on so high that they never even heard the sound of the crackling timber and the exploding bottles of champagne and chutney.
The fire chief told me that even a few more minutes would have meant that they couldn’t save the house since the storeroom and the garage were hard up against the main body of the house. And thank god/goddess/universe/whatever that the HUGE gas tank on the other side of the garage didn’t explode from the heat and flames! Mark said that when one of the firemen saw it, he looked quite startled and told Mark to move away quickly.
Just minutes before the firemen arrived last night, I briefly stepped inside the entry hall since I knew that the dogs were outside and Mark had safely locked them in the other gite. But as I peered into the smoke filled hallway to see if any of the cats were there, I looked to the left and the pet door was glowing with a bright orange light behind it from the roaring flames on the other side. It made me go weak at the knees momentarily and I hastily went back outside. The pet door melted and is completely missing and we are completely agog that the flames didn’t get sucked into the house.
These shots below show you just how large and lovely the main house is. And in the second photo you can see the yet-to-be-rendered side wall of our gite with that vulnerable timber in the upper section. All of that would have been awash in flames quite quickly if the main house had caught fire, so I was quite correct to begin packing in case we needed to make a speedy exit.
We laugh rather often about my ‘beagle senses’ of smell and hearing and I know that it is sometimes annoying when I hear things or smell things that no one else notices until I point them out. This was an instance where I was thrilled to have both heightened physical senses and a strong psychic sense that had been telling me for days that something was not quite right.
The house is intact even if it smells eerily of smoke and all 3 cats and 2 dogs are alive and well.
Blessings abound — and we are grateful!
©Deborah Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
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