On days that are sadder than usual, Cecilia Blurton walks across the street and waters the plants in her old garden. Only a few of them survived the fire that completely destroyed her five-decades-old home this past February 7.
"I liked being outside in my garden. I don't know what they are going to do with the house, so I'm trying to get my plants back, the ones that are potted. My big tree, it got charred," she says. "There's a lot of memories in that house."
The early Sunday morning fire woke up the entire street and probably half of the Dunbar/Spring neighborhood. At around 5 a.m., there were multiple calls to the Tucson Fire Department reporting smoke and flames coming from Blurton's home. Blurton finally woke up after hearing one last loud noise. She got out of the house and ran into the backyard, where she tried to put the fire out with a hose. Her son was at work.
That morning, in 48 minutes, and three months after her husband passed away, the home where her five children grew up became a black skeleton. Everything is destroyed, except for an old wooden computer desk, an antique clock, and some childhood photos of her four daughters and son.
If you believe in miracles, it's a miracle she made it out.
The fire, which is still unknown what triggered it, caused the ceiling to collapse in Blurton's bedroom. But the night before the incident, Blurton fell asleep on the couch watching TV. She brought that couch—slightly damaged by smoke—to the living room at the place she's hopefully temporarily staying. One of her daughters owns property on the east side of Perry Avenue—Blurton moved in after friends and strangers volunteered to clean the place for her. At least she got to stay in Dunbar/Spring, the neighborhood she's called home since a couple of days after she was born.
"I want to go back to my side of the street," the 71-year-old says. "I was on that side of the street for too long."
What's left of the house on 1027 N. Perry Ave. has been condemned by the City of Tucson, and it needs to be demolished as soon as possible. The house was not insured. She now has to purchase a city permit to demolish the property and hire a company to do the work. It'll be costly, and the former long-time nanny cannot afford it.
Pima County librarian and secretary of the Dunbar/Spring Neighborhood Association, Karen Greene organized a fundraiser in April, Songs for Cecilia, to raise money for permit and demolition costs. Greene moved into Dunbar/Spring 11 years ago, and has known Blurton, who lived two houses away, since. "I know I don't have construction skills, but I do have organization skills. Well, I can't help you fix up the house you're living in and I can't help you take down the house that is there, but I can help by putting this benefit together," Greene says. They raised more than $3,100. Greene also opened a bank account to deposit continuous donations. "Her entire life, she has only lived on this block ... the thought of moving somewhere else is just not something she can contemplate."
Blurton envisions herself rebuilding her home and moving back into her side of the street.
"My grandparents used to live across the street from where I lived with my parents," she says, standing outside the gate of her old house. "My aunt also lived in the neighborhood, and my other aunt." Her brother is still a neighbor.
Through what's been one of Blurton's most difficult life experiences, she's found comfort even in the children she used to baby sit, who are now adults. "My extended family," she says.
Many of them reconnected with Blurton after news of the fire. They, as well as her blood family, gathered donations, everything from clothes to furniture for her new place and money.
John Sartin's known Blurton for nearly 30 years. She was the nanny of every single one of his children.
"They still call her mom," he says. Sartin found out about the fire the next day, and he's been helping Blurton navigate through city codes and everything involved in the process.
He and several other friends helped clean up the house where Blurton is living now and raised money to buy her new clothes. The community response Sartin has seen with Blurton's case is not surprising, it's very Tucson, he says.
"Honestly, sometimes I think she is still in shock right now. She still doesn't really get her situation totally. It is understandable because of what she has been through, she is like a refugee, living in someone else's house ... even though it is a family member's, it is not her house," he says. "The first priority is trying to raise the money to get the house torn down before the city enforces their rules. They have already condemned the property, they have already ordered to tear it down. But they have been hands off because they realize that she has no insurance and that there is no money to demolish it. Up to this point, they have not pressured the way they could ... and at some point they will and I understand that."
After demolishing the house, Blurton needs more city permits to rebuild it and a lot of cash to take on the project.
There are five cardboard boxes with the very few belongings Blurton could rescue from the fire. Some of her late husband's stuff is in a storage room in the backyard of her old house. Thankfully, the fire didn't get to it. Her two dogs still live in what is left of her former garden—there's no room for them to run and play in the new house.
"Those boxes right there, I have to go through, and I am just avoiding it. I get tired of going through boxes, I push them aside and let them be there for a while," she says. "At least I have a roof over my head. I am not homeless."