Inventory of loss

Losing everything to fire was just the beginning


Gordon Gregory is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a writer in Paradise, California.

The hardest part hasn't been the cleanup or dealing with county officials trying to control the uncontrollable. It hasn't even been handling the contractors and all the others vying for a piece of the action. The most difficult thing we've had to do is to make a list of everything that burned.

Darin, the claims adjuster from the large-loss division of our homeowners' insurance company, tried to prepare us just days after last summer's Humboldt Fire transformed our Northern California home into a grotesque ash heap. Still in a daze, my wife, Linda, and I sat across from him, filled with hope and fear. We were the wounded, facing a healer who was about to issue a diagnosis. 

"That won't be simple," Darin warned us, offering the kind of understatement you'd expect from someone who's used to handling people after some disaster has splintered their lives.

Now, six months into the "recovery" process, we understand fully what he meant. We remain deeply grateful we had insurance and cannot imagine the difficulties of fellow fire victims who did not. But the medicine the industry offers can be bitter.

The contents list, in particular, has become an evil presence in our lives, for it is not just a list of former possessions, but a massive spreadsheet describing every single item the fire vaporized. It details where it all came from, when it came into our lives, and how much it cost. It is built almost entirely from memory. Perhaps this sounds simple.

How many socks do you have? Don't look. Are some good winter-wool wear? What'd they cost? How about underwear? Books -- they want all the titles -- kitchen utensils, dry goods, tools, toys, everything that hung on the walls, blankets, sheets, towels, coats, everything.

The Humboldt Fire burns near Chico, California, within 15 miles of Paradise, in June 2008.

After you've completed the spreadsheet, the insurance company doesn't open its checkbook. Instead, it ships your novella-length document to a team of appraisers. I envision small, colorless monks working calculators that do nothing but subtract. The monks rationalize an item-by-item depreciation of up to 80 percent using a formula that I suspect involves a dartboard. That's the amount you'll get up front. Then as you replace your belongings, you must save, photocopy and then send the company the receipts to qualify for a second check making up the difference.

Not that we've reached that summit. We're still building the list. It's not from want of effort that we remain in this early step. We have spent hundreds of hours remembering. The list has become an awful urge that lurks within us, waiting for any quiet moment to demand attention, to insist that we fill it with what is no more.

The list requires that we remember the breathtaking video of our daughter, Georgia, giving a presentation about the Amazon rain forest in the first grade, (video tape worth $4); that we recall the wedding album holding the only photos of all our dearest friends and family members in the same quadrant of existence (maybe $15). 

The list whispers, "Don't forget the silk kimono your wife got on her one trip to Japan, the only physical remnant of that magic year; or your father's watch that your mother gave you after he died, (a $39 Timex); your brother's ink drawings, sister's glass art, and the boxes of writings you ridiculously hoped would be discovered some distant day to reveal your brilliance."

No, don't forget anything. Put it down. Figure out its value. Then, of all things, replace it.

Except, of course, that you can't replace it. Once something becomes history, it cannot be reclaimed, only recalled. And that's the real torture of the list: It requires detailed recollection. It destroys the comfort of time, of letting months or years pass before remembering too clearly. For its sake, you cannot take your own time to remember that small porcelain plate your mother painted the year you were married, the one of the single quail, the one that hung in every kitchen you and your wife ever shared, the one the replacement kitchen will never see. No, you must remember the plate, must describe it with words, and when the monks put zero value on it because they could not price it, you must either accept their judgment, or, worse, set your own value. 

The human mind has been designed to adapt to loss, to cushion pain by dulling memory, to use time as a helpful balm. But the insurance industry dispenses with such quaintness. Time may heal all things, but the list won't encourage the process.

Gordon Gregory is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a writer in Paradise, California.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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