Paige Plancich was in Whistler, British Columbia, celebrating Christmas with family when she got the call from her boyfriend. Her apartment was on fire.
Plancich asked him how bad it was and if she needed to return home to Helena. Alex Facetimed her, and she watched as smoke billowed from the apartment and firetrucks surrounded the building.
She and her mother caught the red-eye home the next morning.
Alex was waiting for them at the airport in Plancich’s car, which had been parked near the apartment building the night before. That’s when reality set it.
“My car was covered in black soot and a whole bunch of debris,” she said. “So my initial welcome back to Helena was ‘Oh my God, this does not look good.’”
A lifetime of belongings had been reduced to what she had in her carry-on suitcase.
“I didn’t have just even the basics … underwear, shirts, pants, socks, shoes,” she said. “I’ve never had that feeling ever in my life. It was a very humbling experience.”
But Plancich quickly learned that she wouldn’t have to start the long recovery process alone.
“Red Cross was already helping me before I even landed back in Helena,” Plancich said.
She had lunch with Disaster Action Team volunteers the next day, and they began to walk her through the services they could provide.
And they listened.
“They made me feel like my feelings were real, and I had nothing to be ashamed of,” she said. “So many people kept telling me things can be replaced, and at first that kind of made me angry because no one is letting me feel my feelings.
“The Red Cross set me up if I wanted to see a therapist and they gave me debit cards if I needed to get some new clothes. Just the support that Red Cross gave me all throughout the process was incredible … all the advice, all the check-ins, everything was so much appreciated.”
Plancich was told the fire most likely started in an aging furnace. There was one smoke alarm in the apartment attached to a raised ceiling well beyond her reach. Firefighters believe it didn’t even have a battery.
A mental health technician at the Shodair Children’s Hospital, Plancich is now in a new apartment.
“I’m actually doing very well,” she said. “I thankfully had a lot of donations from the community and a lot of support from my boyfriend and his family.”
A few weeks ago, a Red Cross team stopped by during their Sound the Alarm smoke alarm installation event. They checked Plancich’s alarms and discussed the best ways to escape her home in case of fire. She didn’t take it for granted.
“It’s good to have a plan,” she said.
“Before I was like, ‘Oh nothing bad will ever happen to me. I’m not that small fraction of people whose house will catch on fire.’”
The Montana Red Cross installs free smoke alarms in homes across the state and teaches families about fire safety. Visit www.montanaredcross.org or call 800-272-6668 to sign up or learn more.