Memoir: A stranger set my house on fire, and it renewed my faith in society

Memoir: A stranger set my house on fire, and it renewed my faith in society

(Illustration: Anastasiya Milova)

It was a noise on my porch that woke me. A thud, maybe something falling over. It was 3:09 a.m. I opened the shutters and found myself staring at what looked like embers, floating lazily up from below the porch roof. I told myself I must be imagining it as I ran down the stairs to check. But, inexplicably, there it was: a huge yellow-orange blaze, filling up the entire view through my living room window. I remember the loud, galloping sound of the flames. The beautiful campfire smell of burning Muskoka chairs. The way the whole room was lit up with a warm glow.

For a moment I stood there baffled. How could there be such a big fire? Had we left something combustible out there? Was there a heat source I didn’t know about? It made no sense. That was the last pensive thought I had for a few hours. My survival instincts kicked in quickly and fiercely. I yelled up the stairs, “There’s a fire! Get out of the house!” My two daughters, aged 12 and 14, raced down and past me, quick but cool-headed. My husband was more skeptical. A fire? What fire? There was no smoke, no blaring alarm. Then he saw it.

It was a sticky September night. We ran out the back door then around to the front, where we stood on the sidewalk in our bare feet. From there, my younger daughter spotted a second, smaller fire, licking the front steps of a house a few doors down. All became clear: it had to be arson. Every year, some 240 fires are set deliberately in Toronto, and less than a third of the culprits are caught. It turned out there were six attacks in East York that night within a 40-minute span, some igniting the interiors of cars, some lighting up yard waste bags, some, like ours, on porches. All were set right next to homes.

I grabbed my phone and hadn’t even finished my call to 911 when a fire truck rounded the corner and stopped a few doors down. Later I learned that that first truck had been called by a neighbour, but at the time, the sight of a fire truck stopping short put me in a frenzy. I ran over, waving my arms and calling to the firefighters that there was a much more serious fire—ours just up the street.

One of them jogged over. As I turned to point at our inferno, I noticed that the flames had diminished. Only then did I see my husband standing on the porch—barefoot, shirtless, in his underwear—waving the sprinkler over the ebbing flames. He, too, had leapt into survival mode, grabbing the kitchen fire extinguisher. After that was spent, he’d dragged the hose from the back. “You should let us take over now,” the firefighter told him gently.

Within minutes, both fires were out, leaving blackened remains. Things grew quiet, and we continued to stand out front gabbing. A neighbour two doors south had come to see what was happening, and she stayed on with us to commiserate. Another, from several doors north, came over to see how we were. She could hear our throats going dry, from the talking and from the stress, and she brought us all water.

Firefighters hauled some stuff off our porch: the carcasses of our chairs, the burnt skeleton of our exercise trampoline and the storm window glass that had shattered from the heat. The empty porch was charred and raw, the brick was black, the ceiling blistered. Right above it, I knew, was the master bedroom, where we’d been sleeping just an hour before. I stared through the lone remaining pane of 1920s glass, into our living room. I allowed myself to wonder how close it had come. A firefighter told us we were very lucky.

And that’s exactly how I felt. About an hour later, after the fire crews and police officers had left, we said good night to our neighbours and went inside. We sat in the living room, on the other side of that flimsy glass. The smell of smoke was still heavy. I poured two stiff gin and tonics, and we talked through what had happened, what could have happened, and what miraculously had not happened.

Fire inspectors came back to survey the damage and take pictures. Soon another police officer knocked on our door. He took our statements. He said he was sorry it had happened and that they’d do their best to find the person who did it. (So far, no luck.)

It helped that it had been random, I told my Facebook friends in an early-hours post. It helped that it hadn’t gotten into the house. It helped that we’d acted decisively and without panic. Most importantly, it was oddly exhilarating to witness that, although our world can’t be free from danger, we can build a society largely able to cope. Everything, I realized, had worked as it should. The firefighters were quick and adept. The police were kind and respectful. The neighbours were supportive and warm.

After the officer left, I made myself another drink. It was 5:45 a.m. Soon I would watch the sun come up. The girls would go to school. My husband would go to work. And I would call the insurance company, exhausted and a little sad, to begin rebuilding what we’d lost.

Alison Motluk is a writer in Toronto. Email submissions to