Fire, sparked by a heat lamp, erupted in the Pendleton-area home of Michael and Jackie Whitesell and their three children the morning of March 14.
“We lost 99 percent of our stuff,” Jackie Whitesell said. “It was a total loss.”
The lamp fell into the chicken pen, igniting the sawdust and seconds later much more at 45542 Mission Road. Flames spread and smoke poured out of the home. Umatilla Tribal Fire arrived within moments, and the Pendleton Fire Department arrived as well. Crews battled the blaze for more than an hour.
Whitesell said it took more than seven months — until late October — before they could move back into their home.
The family recovered a few “very precious things” from the charred remains, she said, including some photographs of the children and family heirlooms of silverware and quilts.
Family members, their congregation at the Pendleton Baptist Church, the community and even strangers from around the country pitched in, she said, to provide the family with basics from clothes to bedding.
That help, especially the first two months, “got us back on our feet,” Jackie said.
They also had to improvise.
Whitesell home-schools her children, but the home was uninhabitable. So during the day they stayed in their shop, where they set up a camp kitchen, a small living area and a play area.
“I did the dishes in an outdoor shower all summer long surrounded by sheep in their pasture,” she said.
At night, they slept in a trailer.
“We did that for eight months,” she said.
The Whitesells began repairs and rebuilding in June. Michael did the electrical projects and together they did the finish work. Family and friends helped, and contractors aware of their situation moved them to the front of the line. All the effort meant the work never stalled.
“Our goal was to move in before the snow flew, and we did that by Halloween,” she said.
They slept in real beds, had indoor plumbing and flowing hot water. She said that first shower was “amazing.”
Pendleton fire reported it responded to 19 structure fires this year, most of those residential. Chief Mike Ciraulo estimated roughly 10 fires forced out the occupants. Umatilla County Fire District Chief Scott Stanton estimated the agency handled 36-40 residential fires this year, from kitchen burns to full-blown blazes that destroyed homes. Somewhere in the area of 12-15 of those fires, he said, displaced the occupants.
Ten people at a house on East Cherry Avenue, Hermiston, had to seek shelter due to a fire from an electric heating source. The icy morning of Jan. 24 was the scene for a fire that tore through the Pendleton home at 1525 S.E. Alexander Place. Fire on March 6 ruined the home at space 14 of 82276 Hat Rock Road and consumed the basement and main floor of 39047 Missouri Gulch Road, about 16 miles northwest of Pendleton. The following day, a malfunctioning furnace created the fire that displaced a Hermiston family of six from their duplex on the 900 block of Orchard Avenue.
The East Oregonian reported on at least a dozen more local house fires, including the Whitesells, a March 10 fire at 2600 S.W. Goodwin Ave., Pendleton, that displaced a family and their 20-pound iguana, and the July 16 arson at a Pilot Rock home where one man died.
The Oregon State Fire Marshal reported from 2012-16 there were 3,510 residential fires during the holiday period Nov. 22 through Jan. 15. The fires resulted in 14 deaths, 194 injuries and more than $61.2 million in property loss.
Dollar losses per residential fire in 2014 averaged $16,500, according to the U.S. Fire Administration’s latest edition of “Fire in the United States,” a 97-page report using fire data spanning 2005-2014. The Fire Administration estimated there were 375,400 residential building fires each of those years.
“National estimates show that on average from 2005 to 2014, 96 percent of residential structure fires, 96 percent of associated deaths, 97 percent of injuries, and 95 percent of dollar losses occurred in residential buildings,” the report states.
The most recent local house fire was Thursday afternoon at 55825 Wildhorse Road. The East Umatilla County Rural Fire Protection District responded and found flames engulfing the cabin. Chief Dave Baty said crews could only protect the surrounding areas, but the occupants made it safely to a neighbor’s house.
Jackie Whitesell said they still have to finish their home, from shelving to landscaping to putting on the back porch. She said their children did well throughout the ordeal, often seeing the event as an adventure. She credited the community for all its kindness and for God giving the family strength.
“My mantra has been we are victors, not victims,” she said.
Even so, there have been moments that knocked her back, she said, such as realizing — yet again — an item she wanted “was all burned up.”
Contact Phil Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0833.