When Devon Bernica felt the heat rising in her son’s nursery, she wondered if she would ever step foot inside it again. The black smoke and flames rising above the CityPlace development at Nieman Road and College Boulevard nearby seemed threatening from the beginning.
The fire started shortly after her son awakened from an afternoon nap. As she watched, Bernica quickly wondered if she and her toddler would be safe, or if they should leave. If they left, what should they take?
“You really don’t know what to take in a fire. I literally just grabbed the stuff that could fit in a bag, and we left,” Bernica said.
Bernica, like dozens of Overland Park residents, left their homes last week after a large blaze at an apartment complex that was under construction sent sparks flying. The blaze spread to the nearby neighborhood, damaging 25 homes up to a half-mile away. Eight houses were left uninhabitable.
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Those who fled did not know if they would have homes when they returned.
Most who had damage did not have a lot of time to think about what to take with them.
All residents who were evacuated are aware that “things” are unimportant in the big scheme. Pets, of course, were rescued after all humans were safe.
But some who watched the flames spread had enough time to consider what was important enough to save. Unsurprisingly, for most, those “things” were objects that held precious family memories. Some were simply practical or difficult to replace, like passports, birth certificates and laptops with data.
Here, they tell stories about what they took and what they thought about that they left behind.
When she was grabbing things on her way out the door, Bernica thought about her grandfather, who died a couple years ago. She has his prayer books and cards. Her son is named after him and was passed several sentimental items, including a $3 bill her grandfather brought back from a war. She first thought to grab her grandfather’s stuff, some clothes for her son and some diapers.
“It’s scary because you don’t know what you won’t see ever again,” Bernica said. “It was scary to have my baby on my hip and I could make maybe only one trip.
“I went to the back door and started lining up my stuff because we didn’t know if the wind would change and come this way.”
She has a fire box for important papers. She picked it up on the way out the door as well, but she didn’t think about her wedding album, full of treasured memories.
Danielle Prince saw the smoke when she returned from lunch with her mother. They saw the fire from several blocks away and the closer they got, the more Prince panicked, as she realized her home was along a line of houses that were burning.
Prince knew her son, Thomas, and his puppy were not at home, as his car was not in the driveway.
“I froze for a second and my mom said, ‘Get Jessie,’ our old dog,” Prince said. Inside, Prince found her dog and headed out.
“I looked around and I thought, ‘I really don’t want to be in the house with that going on.’ ”
She forgot her glasses. So for the next 16 hours, she went without the glasses and without knowing if their house was OK or in flames. She watched for a while from down the street.
“What we saw was it hitting the other houses. Then it flew over us and hit the house across the street. I thought my house was next,” Prince said.
She has a fire box in which she keeps important documents, but realized later their birth certificates were on the table, instead of in the box, because they had just gotten passports for a cruise.
“It made me think I need to have more pictures of my home for insurance if everything went up,” Prince said.
The next morning, she woke up at 7:15 and walked over to her house. It was still there. They had no damage except some burnt areas on their backyard fence.
“It was just a relief. I came in and got my eyeglasses,” Prince said.
Gregg Kaifes was making an airport run when he got the call that the apartment building that sits just a short distance from his backyard was on fire. By the time he was able to try to go home, he wasn’t able to get into the neighborhood or to his house to see if it had burned.
“I didn’t get in until after 8. I tried to get in for a couple of hours, and I couldn’t get in here,” Kaifes said. “They wouldn’t let me walk around to see if my house was on fire. I live here, and I cared. I have some stuff here I didn’t want to get hurt.”
Kaifes’ kids are in college. He does not have pets. He has insurance to replace anything damaged, but he wanted to check on his belongings. He thought about his collection of sports memorabilia, gathered over 20 years of attending a variety of national events.
“You can replace clothes. But your collections are hard to replace,” Kaifes said.
When he finally did get in to discover his home was undamaged, firefighters were still working on the scene. He watched from his bedroom window as the flames from the apartment complex raged. So he decided not to take anything in his collection. He grabbed some clothes and went to a hotel to stay the night.
Kaifes said when he was in the middle of the emergency, he found what mattered most was his ability to get to work and carry on. It was not until 2 p.m. the next day that he found out for certain his belongings were safe.
Eric Haynes was not at home, but his roommate, Patrick Nicholson, started gathering stuff. Haynes kept calling to find out if the house was OK and to talk with Nicholson about what kind of things to gather. Haynes could not get home, but Nicholson never left.
“Basically I wouldn’t leave because I didn’t know if the fire would shift. I was inside, I was outside. I was filming,” Nicholson said.
Haynes’ car was stuck in the driveway, blocked in by firetrucks that were fighting the blaze directly behind the house. Since they were to the east of the blaze, their home was not damaged by the fire, but it came very close to the property.
Nicholson piled items like laptops with data and pictures and put it in the back of his truck, which he could pull out of the driveway through the neighbor’s grass. He saved two signed baseballs.
Haynes asked him to put aside important documents, electronic equipment that had pictures on it and cash, because those things would not be replaceable. He also had Nicholson pull some sentimental pictures of his son, his mother and his graduation.
“I like this picture of my son, because it was after KU won the national championship. He had put up the No. 1, and no one even told him. So, that’s one of the most important ones to me,” Haynes said.
Dodie Ramm thought about her photography equipment. She is an amateur photographer and wanted to make sure she grabbed her camera. It is not the first time she had been affected by fire.
“I’ve been through this before. When I moved to New Orleans, I had all my stuff in storage and the first week I was there, the storage unit burned down,” Ramm said.
This time, the back side of her home was melted, and the roof shingles on her home sustained damage, but the belongings inside were safe.
At first, the police told her roommate she could only go back and grab the dog. Ramm was not able to get in for another couple hours. When she did, she got the photo equipment, but did not think to grab a birth certificate or passport. She and her roommate grabbed several days’ worth of clothes and escaped to a hotel.
“There was no electricity. So, we just wanted to have a change of clothes and some makeup,” Ramm said.
Troy Douglas was at work when the fire broke out. His wife, Holly, was at home with their 10-year-old daughter. At first, the two left the house, simply because their daughter was afraid.
“They just left because they wanted to give her peace of mind. They left before the house went up,” Douglas said.
Douglas and his family have only lived in their home about three months. They have boxes in the basement that are still unpacked.
“Right now, I’m not too sure what I’m missing. The kids’ rooms got the brunt of it,” Douglas said.
His daughter, Lainie, lost her giraffe collection. Sean, his 7-year-old, lost his fledgling KU collection.
“He is the most laid-back kid ever. The majority of the fire was in his room, and he pretty much lost everything. His room was decked out in KU stuff and it’s all gone, but he hasn’t said anything. It hasn’t fazed him. So, I think that’s pretty good,” Douglas said.
Douglas said they are not thinking about the items they wished they saved because they have insurance, and everyone in the family is safe.
“That’s all that matters. The house will take a while, but it will be repaired,” Douglas said. “I can’t thank God enough for the fact that everyone is safe,” Douglas said.
Tips on home evacuation
The Department of Homeland Security advises that evacuations, either mandatory or advised, are actually more common than most people realize. They happen hundreds of times a year across the country. Advance planning is a good idea for all people. The list of tips for people who are evacuated because of fire or natural disasters includes:
1. Have a family escape plan: This plan should include safe locations for emergencies, and how to get ahold of loved ones if communication systems, such as phones or internet, are not available. It should also include family meeting places.
2. Have a disaster supply kit: This would include food, water and personal supplies, including needed medications, for 72 hours. Extra pet food, extra eyeglasses and clothing could also be part of this kit.
3. Keep your gas tank at least half full: While this advice might not be important for a house fire, a larger emergency or the evacuation of a large area may mean that gas stations are unavailable or closed during power outages.
4. Important papers and information: In addition to keeping your important papers like passports, medical information and birth certificates in a safe location, consider making a paper copy of important contact information, like phone numbers, email addresses, doctor’s contact information, schools and other service providers. Keep one in another safe location.
5. Make a pet plan: If you want to take your pets with you, it is important to understand that most animals, with the exception of service animals, are not allowed at shelters. Many hotels also do not allow pets. Update tags and consider microchipping your pets. Find out which hotels in your area do allow pets and get a pet carrier. If you have to shelter your animal, remember you will need up-to-date vaccinations for most shelters. Keep a paper copy of this information handy.