This is the first of several installments on what it’s like to lose your home to fire.
We’ve all heard of families losing everything to a blazing inferno — lives, health and property. Our hearts may break for them, we reach out to help, but then our lives go on. But what’s it like to live through such an experience?
I’m going to break a basic rule of a journalist — that the reporter is not supposed to be a part of the story. But this is no ordinary story. It happened to me and my family: my wife, Margaret; and our son, Zak, his wife, Lynn, and their four daughters, ages 2, 4, 6 and 8. Because of how this community has rallied around us, I believe I should share the story.
It was before 5 a.m. the day after Easter. Our neighbor, Ralph Swinehart, was awakened by a bleating sheep at his Alder Slope home. He went to rescue the sheep, which had its head caught in a fence. Nothing initially caught his eye from our home. Then he saw a blaze coming from our garage.
He quickly called 911 — as did Lynn and other neighbors — and came banging on our front door, shouting, “Fire!” This man literally saved our lives.
We’re all newcomers to Enterprise. Margaret and I raised our family in Idaho. After a hitch in the Marine Corps and marrying Lynn — who became like a daughter to us — they ended up in Enterprise a little over a year ago. Margaret and I followed in August at the kids’ urging. Lynn even suggested, “I hear the Chieftain’s desperate for a reporter.”
I guess they were. So here we are.
We’d had a wonderful Easter together. It was a bit unusual in these times of coronavirus shutdowns of everything, but we “attended” church online and thanked God for the death and resurrection of His Son. We even ate roast lamb for dinner, much like Jews did at a Passover seder the previous Wednesday. We didn’t try to do a real seder — and we even saved the leftover mutton instead of burning it (Exodus 12). It’s burned now. After an evening together, we retired for what we thought would be a peaceful rest.
When Zak heard Ralph — in typical Marine Corps fashion — he kept his head and quickly told Lynn so they got the girls out in the front yard by the camper, simultaneously alerting us. Margaret had already awakened, and then rousted me. My first, sleep-clouded reaction was to dismiss her alarm, but I quickly saw the flames.
With the kids safely out front, we turned our attention to our five dogs and two cats, all of whom were scared out of their wits and difficult to control. Our know-it-all beagle, Brutus, was, as usual, disobedient and I had to carry him to the pickup. Margaret easily corralled her tame cat, but the other one, independent Priscilla, was nowhere to be found until hours later.
While rounding up the animals, we also moved the vehicles out to the road. Lynn’s van was closest to the blaze, seriously damaged on the outside and full of smoke. The others were undamaged.
Then, Zak went back for his new tractor, which was parked between the garage and house. With the wind blowing down the slope like it often does, the fire started to reach a 100-foot evergreen between the buildings. Zak drove the tractor to safety, but the flames flashed toward him caused some serious burns to his right hand and other lesser burns. He was later hospitalized for a few hours, but is now on the mend.
I’m not sure how long it took, but firefighters and trucks from Enterprise and Joseph arrived quickly and fought the blaze valiantly. As fast as the garage burned, there was no saving it. The firefighters turned to protect the house, where fire charred the back porch and kitchen. Smoke damage permeated the entire house, covering nearly everything.
Despite the pain of this experience, we haven’t lost our faith. I clearly recall that Lynn, getting a moment to think, was nearly in tears and repeating out loud, “God is good! God is good!” She verbalized what the rest of us were thinking.
I just can’t get over all the people — both locals and friends and family from afar — God has sent to help. In addition to Ralph’s quick thinking, friend Erin Pace took the girls to her house early where they were spared the trauma of the scene. Overall, the Wallowa County community — particularly our church family — has come together to offer whatever assistance and support they can, and we can’t thank you enough.
Now, we begin to move on. Again, all our thanks — to God and to Wallowa County.
Next: Sifting through the ashes.