The remnants of Kay Trimberger's office after the fire. Photo: Kay Trimberger

By E. Kay Trimberger

E. Kay Trimberger was eating breakfast at home on Dec. 12 when she heard a smoke alarm go off. She soon realized that a fire had broken out in her study, the place that held her computer with all her writing for her current book project. Trimberger called 911 and the Berkeley Fire Department responded within minutes. In this essay, Trimberger describes their particularly Berkeley response to the fire, and thanks them for saving her house.

We looked like a picture from a child’s book — a line of people in various stages of undress, starring up at the smoke rolling out of the top floor of my house as firemen swarmed in. I was in my exercise clothes and slippers, fortunate to have grabbed a jacket and gloves, while my neighbor, Alice, donned her long apricot down robe. Stephen, my tenant from the cottage behind my house, was barefoot.

Three fire trucks with at least ten men and one woman showed up quickly, soon joined by a fourth truck.  The fire report says I called the fire in at 9:19 a.m., that the firefighters left the station at 9:22 and arrived at my house at 9:26.  All I know is that everything happened very fast.

When the firefighters arrived, they immediately moved into action.  Two men attached hoses to a hydrant down the block and dragged the heavy load into the house. Another larger team, with gas masks, oxygen tanks and axes, had already made their way upstairs.  Two more men raised a ladder to the roof, went up, and chopped two large holes in the roof, letting out billows of smoke. I later learned that another team entered the unaffected main floor of the house, piling up furniture and valuables and covering them with a tarp in case the fire spread or they needed to use a lot of water.  Fortunately, neither was the case.

The fire started in my study, every academic and writer’s worst fear. I went upstairs to the study at 8:30 a.m. when I returned from my early morning exercise class at the Y to turn on the heater so it would be warm when I went up to work after breakfast. I quickly entered and exited the room, and didn’t smell anything, although, at age 71, my sense of smell is not what it used to be. Certainly there was no smoke. As I finished a leisurely breakfast, lingering over the paper, I heard an alarm start ringing. Since the door to my kitchen/breakfast room was closed, as was the door between my living room and the hallway that leads upstairs, it took me a few minutes to realize that the alarm was coming from my house and not somewhere outside. When I entered the front hall, I knew the ringing was coming from my upstairs smoke detector, a new model installed last summer. I ran upstairs, opened the study door and a blast of black smoke almost knocked me over. I quickly closed the door, ran downstairs and called 911. I didn’t think of using a fire extinguisher. The fire company confirmed that it was too late for that.

This was a Berkeley fire team, for one of their first acts was to unhook the desktop computer with my hard drive and carry it downstairs to safety, along with my laptop and camera. I was too much in shock to think of requesting such action. Then they put a tarp over my desk that held the notebooks and files for my current project, while fire and smoke devoured books and older files across the small room. Later, three men carried down large tarps filled with smoldering books and the remains of bookcases, dumped them in the driveway and sprayed the growing pile with water, thus minimizing water damage in the house. During this procedure, one young fireman came over and asked:

“Are you an anthropologist?”

“No,” I replied, “a sociologist.”

“I majored in anthropology at Cal,” the fireman said, “and I’m fascinated by your books.”

Because of the excellent work by our fire department, the fire was contained upstairs to the study, one bedroom and the hall, where there is extensive smoke damage. I lost only books and equipment, which can be replaced, along with files related to old published work that should have been discarded long ago.

Kay Trinberger standing outside her house with possessions retrieved after the fire. Photo: Kay Trimberger

Standing outside, I was sure that the electric heater was the cause of the fire, but when the supportive and affable sergeant led me in to inspect the damage, he pointed out that an improved plug to which a power strip with the heater and computer had been attached was not burned. But an older plug, where I had attached a paper shredder, was a charred mess. Later, in the driveway, we found the remains of the shredder melted into a nearly unrecognizable mass of molten metal. I was told that this old electric line was knob and tube, probably the original wiring in this 1920s house.  From the web, I learned that this type of wiring, while not inherently dangerous, was discontinued by the 1950s. The problem today is the age of the wiring, possible damage by rodents and the limited number of outlets in each room, which can lead to overloading with our greater number of appliances.  From talking with friends, I know that many of our old Berkeley homes still have knob and tube wiring.  I have some new wiring due to the installation of two heaters upstairs and a kitchen remodel downstairs, but I now want all the original wiring upgraded.

This personal experience with the fire department reinforces my belief that our public servants are worthy recipients of our tax dollars. Rather than complain about the good pensions of retired firemen, I assert that they earn every penny with exemplary service in dangerous situations.

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