Rebuilding After a House Fire

Rebuilding After a House Fire

When fire destroyed their home, a Chevy Chase family faced many challenges

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Eric and Kristin Burka moved back into their rebuilt home 14 months after a fire. “You thought it would never happen to you, ever, and then it did,” says Kristin Burka of the fire. Photo by Skip Brown.

On the evening of Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, Eric Burka, his wife, Kristin, and two of their three children were watching the movie Romeo and Juliet in their Town of Chevy Chase family room. Eric, whose father had died two days before, was enjoying the quiet time at home with his family. “We had let the kids stay home from school and we were just really into hanging out together,” Eric says.

The music in the movie was loud and the Burkas’ daughters, Lily, then 15, and Ava, 13, were dancing. The Burkas’ 11-year-old son, Max, and a friend were up on the third floor playing, and the family’s housekeeper, Swarnapali, was in the basement. Halfway through the movie, one of the Burkas’ two dogs started barking.

When Kristin opened the door to let the dog out, she noticed some black smoke in the backyard and asked Eric to come take a look. He thought it was probably from the tile work being done in the house next door, which had been vacant and under construction for a year and a half. When he saw how thick the smoke was, he ran to the front door and found the street jammed with fire engines and the house next door engulfed in flames. The movie had drowned out the chaos. Eric yelled to everyone in his house to get out.

The group stood on 45th Street in Chevy Chase watching the flames grow higher and higher. Suddenly, the house next door exploded. Three large windows near the back of the structure blew out from the heat, creating a powerful, three-story blow torch aimed directly at the Burkas’ home.

The blast lit the Burkas’ attic on fire, and a row of 35-foot trees separating the homes ignited. The flames quickly ate a large hole in the Burkas’ roof. Firefighters climbed aerial ladders and pumped water and flame-retardant foam into the home for almost an hour.

Pictures and videos of the three-alarm blaze began to saturate the evening news and social media. The smoke could be seen from as far as Northern Virginia.

At their home in Silver Spring, Kristin’s parents, Betty and Leonard King, were making dinner when they received a phone call from the Burkas’ alarm company. Kristin had given their names as emergency contacts, and the company called to say that all the alarms in the house had triggered and that the homeowners weren’t answering their cellphones—everyone fled the house so quickly that no one remembered to pick up a phone, and Kristin didn’t have her purse. “People ask, ‘What would you grab if your house was on fire?’ ” she says. “The answer is, ‘Nothing.’ ”  

When Betty and Leonard arrived, Kristin immediately packed the three kids and two dogs into her mother’s Prius and sent them back to her house so the kids wouldn’t have to watch anymore. A neighbor took Max’s friend to her house.

Firefighters pulled down the ceiling and walls on the third floor to expose and extinguish any flames in the attic and ripped out walls on the second floor to make sure the fire hadn’t spread there. Water ran through the second and first floor ceilings and drenched other parts of the house. In shock, Eric and Kristin kept thinking, Please don’t let it burn to the ground.

We’ll lose everything.

Four hours later, around 9 p.m., firefighters told them that the fire at the house next door was out and that a unit would check for flare-ups every 90 minutes throughout the night.

Although much of the structure of the Burkas’ house was intact, the home was uninhabitable. A large chunk of the roof was gone, making the night sky visible from the third floor, and there was water, ash and charred debris everywhere. Late that evening, Eric’s stepfather, a former Bethesda real estate agent, called Beltsville-based Minkoff Company and asked for a team of property restoration specialists to board up the windows and throw a tarp over the hole in the roof.

On Saturday morning, the Burka family walked through the house that they had bought new in 2001 and lived in for 12 years—it was the only time Eric and Kristin let the kids into the destroyed home.  

Right: The fire started at the house next door.

Eric and Kristin were relieved to see that firefighters had covered the piano and dining room table on the first floor, which had been passed down to Eric from his grandmother, with flame- and water-retardant covers, but they were devastated to see how much had been lost. Kristin found the stuffed bunny that Max had since he was a baby, but the Torah and tallit from Ava’s recent bat mitzvah were gone. Ava was also very sad to discover that a sculpture she made at school had been crushed by a piece of falling ceiling.

“One day my room was one way, and the next it wasn’t even our house anymore,” Lily says. “That was the room I grew up in, where all my memories with my friends were, and it was gone.”

As Eric stood on the sidewalk watching his home burn the night before, strangers began approaching him with business cards. They were lawyers, insurance adjustors and others who monitor emergency services broadcasts and troll for clients at a disaster scene. Eric’s stepfather shooed them away and told Eric to call Harvey Goodman of Goodman-Gable-Gould (GGG) in Rockville, a firm of public adjustors who advocate on behalf of policyholders and handle negotiations with insurance companies.

The day after the fire, a team from GGG and people who specialize in art, furniture and electronics restoration began removing pieces from the home that they thought they could repair, including the table from Eric’s grandmother. “There were 10 different teams carrying our stuff out in 10 different directions,” Kristin says. “We didn’t know who had what or where it was going.”  

Fire and water damage had destroyed many of the family’s belongings, including Eric’s childhood comic book collection.

The following day, Sunday, the family attended Eric’s father’s funeral in a state of numbness and in clothes that, despite the rush dry cleaning job, still smelled of smoke. “It was very surreal,” Eric says. “I knew everybody there, but I didn’t see anybody.”  

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