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Home Fires: 'Stuff' Doesn't Fare Well Against Fire, Water, and Smoke

Ellen Goodwin, Artifcts
October 27, 2021

We had a five-alarm house fire one Saturday afternoon in January when I was in the second grade. My parents sent us down to the neighbor’s house for our safety (and to get us out of the way, I’m sure). Our loyal golden retriever did not get the memo and kept busting into the house to try and rescue us only to be escorted out by the firefighters. 

Late 19th century farm house

We could easily have lost everything. Had my grandfather not arrived when he did for a visit, and had my brother not been so excited to show him some new football cards he’d gotten, my brother never would have discovered his room full of smoke in time to save the house from the fire that was creeping through the walls after the chimney cracked. Even as it was, my father called 911 and hung up thinking maybe it wasn’t a big deal before relenting and calling again. It was at that point my mom took the now fabled Black Forest Soup she was cooking for dinner off the stove. Dinner canceled. 

We were lucky. Our family was displaced for about three months while they tore out the errant fireplace and chimney from our more than 100-year-old farmhouse (shown above)—notably, the original fireplace and chimney are still there, this was the newer one.  

We had to rebuild most of our living room and my siblings’ bedrooms in addition to having everything from the walls and floors to textiles and toys professionally cleaned to get the smoke stains and smell out. Curtains, clothing, blankets, my mom’s wedding gown – bags and bags of stuff and memories carried out for cleaning. 

Vintage 1970s wedding gown      vintage 1980s baby blanket


Click an image to view the Artifct.


I don’t think my siblings and I got to take anything out of the house with us that day. But my mom had boxes of family photos. I remember seeing the blue photo box with the white lid. The rest was left to the whims of the fire. 

Home Fires and Personal Loss 

Now I look around my adult home and think, if the house were on fire and we were all (humans and pets) out safe, what would I take out if I had time? I use this thought process to Artifct sometimes – making sure that in the worst case, I have the memory captured, and in best case, I have a record I can turn over to my homeowner's insurance agent for replacement of the (at least somewhat) replaceable items. I have even moved some items not on display or active use to airtight bins like home organization professionals advocate in case that would save them in a fire like the one I experienced as a child. Smoke and water were the primary sources of loss. 

urn, Cisco the golden retriever     photographs of surf boards and surf friends

Click an image above to check out what Artifcts co-founder Heather Nickerson would rescue from fire.

I asked my neighbor, Westlake Fire Chief David Wilson, about his experience with families in similar situations. "They don’t usually come out carrying stuff,” he told me. With the fire crew taking over the scene, families make requests of the firefighters to rescue sentimental items, like a painting in a study, a blanket from a bed, an heirloom gun from a safe, or photos from a closet. He added, “We want people to be prepared, though." You should know what you'd save and where it is located. It's so much harder, and clearly more emotional, after the fact. Families will sit stunned, making lists. It's painful to sift through memories of what was in hopes of going through what remains and rescuing the tangible representations of the past.

Be Prepared 

As you prepare for the chilly fall and winter days and nights ahead, complete the home maintenance required to keep you, your loved ones, and your home safe. Use common sense too and avoid setting up fire traps with unattended candles, hot-burning lights, poorly screened fires, or even ill-placed (seemingly benign) glass objects that can act as sun magnifiers; we do after all live in a flammable world. Don't forget to Artifct those most precious items.

Here are a few non-profit resources with step-by-step guides, safety equipment tips, and even after-fire help resources.


© 2021 Artifcts, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

What's New at Artifcts
Gift Your Loved Ones a “Why”

Do not dismiss the power of answering the “Why?” Here are four of its superpowers: 


If you are going to make your niece cart around a sitting Buddha sculpture for her remaining days as part of your last will and testament, you could at least tell her why!

Wills and estate plans by nature focus on the what and often neglect the why. And that’s if the will even references an itemized list of tangible assets! The reality then is loved ones may act out of obligation to respect your wishes and hang onto the items you give them but with a tinge of disgruntled acceptance. 


Imagine two people who feel equally attached to an object that once belonged to a deceased loved one. In the will, the object goes to one of those people. To squash any potential disappointment or misdirected anger at the recipient, the owner could share the why and explain the bond between the person and/or object and recipient. Closure, in this case, is another great gift of the why. 


Your loved ones want to remember you. But memory is fickle. And sometimes, that's your own doing. Did you make up three different versions of events as to how that painting came into your collection? Did you ever tell the story? Set the record straight with any combination of photos, video, audio, and a brief (or long!) story as you Artifct the truth of that object. 

Your loved ones want to remember you. But memory is fickle.


How many of you reading this have an up-to-date will or estate plan? Odds are you do not, at least according to a report from, which said that two out of three US adults and half of UK adults do not have a will.  

Introducing items you cherish into your plan and/or at least into the discussion if you're working with a real live estate planning attorney helps to ensure that your assets will be directed to the correct people, your wishes carried out. It also helps the professionals you rely on to guide you to better understand you and support the full scope of your financial, insurance, tax, and estate plans. 

Join us tomorrow as we discuss these themes and more during Evenings with Artifcts, with guest speaker Dutch Miller. RSVP now > 

Happy Artifcting! 


Did we miss a superpower of “why?” Let us know at and we may feature your addition! 

© 2022 Artifcts, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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The Evenings with Artifcts Series, Fall 2022

Throughout fall 2022, we're hosting Evenings with Artifcts on Thursday evenings. Our guests in this nine-part series dive into the world of 'stuff' and stories. Below we've provided a week by week feature for each speaker in the series and direct links to the speaker's Artifcts, other related ARTIcles by Artifcts, and the Evenings with Artifcts event recordings. 

Want to suggest a speaker for future live events? We'd love to hear from you! Please contact us at


Matt Paxton joins Evenings with Artifcts

Week 1: Matt Paxton (@IAMMATTPAXTON)

Host of the TV show Legacy List with Matt Paxton



Related content: 

- 15 Decluttering Targets for Artifcters

- Event replay on YouTube

Jeff Greenwald joins Evenings with Artifcts

Week 2: Jeff Greenwald (@Jeffji)

Acclaimed author, artist, photographer, and speaker



Related content:

Is That a Toy Camera?

- Not Sure What to Write? Tips from Jeff Greenwald

- Event replay on YouTube

Dutch Miller joins Evenings with Artifcts

Week 3: Dutch Miller (@Gardenboy)

Estate planner, hobby family historian, Smithsonian volunteer



Related content:

- Gift Your Loved Ones a "Why" (Coming soon!)

- Visit Event replay on YouTube > (Coming soon!)

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Not Sure What to Write? Tips from Guest Jeff Greenwald

He's authored 1000s of articles, several books, and what's maybe the first known travel blog. And on Thursday night during Evenings with Artifcts Jeff Greenwald shared with us simple but powerful tips, and a healthy dose of perspective, to help us craft our own stories behind the objects of our lives.  

Watch the full Evenings with Artifcts event here.

  • It is hard to write about an object with no personal meaning but even harder when it has tremendous personal meaning. Bear that in mind and go easy on yourself. 

  • Start with something true. This is the trick to writing anything nonfiction. For example, start with a little line about where you got the object: “I bought this in a street market in Istanbul.” And from there go on to describe the scene a little bit and what happened there that connects you with the object.  

Start with something true.

  • Other starters for your Artifcts:  

        • Where were you when you acquired the object? 
        • Was it a gift? Who gave it to you? Tell a bit about them. What was your relationship with them that they felt they should give you a gift like that? “The moon Rocket was a gift for my friend Dave Mccutcheon, and he and I have been friends for many years and share a love of robots and spaceships and dinosaurs... all those things we loved when we were kids.” 
        • Why is it important to you?
        • What feelings does it evoke in you?
  • If a story comes to mind, you can just start jotting it down anywhere. Let your thoughts go where they will. It can be a collection of random thoughts that you can look at later and put together into some sort of a story structure. 

  • We all have stories. Writers block comes from our internal critic. It challenges you with, “Why would anybody want to read it? What could you have to say? What makes you think you're so great that anyone should listen to anything you're telling them?” You have to tell yourself, “I have a right to do this because I’m a human being with a story, and the story deserves to be told whether or not you, my internal critic, thinks that it does.” Push the internal critic aside. 
I’m a human being with a story, and the story deserves to be told.
  • If you value the stories and need motivation to begin capturing and preserving those stories with Artifcts, make a deal with yourself like Jeff did. Jeff made a pact to give away the objects once their stories were told. Maybe you’ll choose to Artifct twice per week. Or perhaps you’ll start with those items that are most meaningful to you.  

  • A bit of advice Jeff shared from esteemed author Kurt Vonnegut: Write your stories as though you are writing them for one person, as if you are telling this person each of the stories. It gives all the stories a similar tone, a singular voice. 

  • Always include when and where the object was acquired. These are important details.

  • Struggling with a title? Write out 10 of them. It will help you to start to shape your story, too.

Our stuff, the objects that we collect, that inspire us, they are really not what's important. We do not need to keep them. The only thing that is important are the stories, and the only way to keep the stories is to tell them.


© 2022 Artifcts, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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