HERMISTON — Laura Leal was at work in Boardman July 12 when her mother called with the news — her childhood home was burning.
She rushed to the house on Agnew Road in Hermiston with her fiance, Jose Contreras. Memories from the house flooded in: holiday gatherings with family; saying yes to Jose’s marriage proposal on Valentine’s Day; caring for the backyard garden with her father, Andres V. Cabrales, who died just 12 days before.
Firefighters were there when she arrived. A meal the family cooked countless times had sparked the fire. Smoke billowed from the rooftop, and their dog, Candy, still was inside.
Fearing the house might collapse, firefighters didn’t want to go back inside, but they eventually escorted Jose into the house to rescue the tiny pup, according to Nickolas Oatley, a spokesperson for Umatilla County Fire District 1.
Firefighters eventually contained the blaze, but the home the family had owned for generations was totaled. But their belongings, though wet from fire hoses, could be recovered. Firefighters assured them they’d keep an eye on the house throughout the day, checking in to make sure there wasn’t smoke coming from remaining embers.
Laura, 22, took her family back to her house in Boardman. That night, she was scrolling through Facebook when she saw posts about another fire on Agnew Road. It couldn’t be ours, she thought. Her uncle had given firefighters his phone number. They hadn’t called. All was well. She went to sleep.
The following morning, Laura and her family arrived at their home expecting to gather up their belongings — clothes, furniture, pots and pans, her father’s things.
What they found left them stunned.
A second, larger fire had ignited overnight. The walls had crumbled. The furniture was incinerated. Browned and blackened leaves covered a tree out front that stood at least 30 feet tall. Bits of charcoal littered the front yard. The baby cow out back, which Laura’s father bought two months before, was dead, apparently from smoke inhalation.
All that remained was the charred framework of the home — a skeleton of what once was.
“They came out with just the clothes they were wearing,” Laura said of her family. “They lost everything.”
The fire had continued to burn in a concealed space in the attic, between the top of the insulation and the bottom of the roof deck of the family’s manufactured home, according to Scott Goff, the fire marshal for Umatilla County Fire District 1. Firefighters hadn’t detected any smoke when they last checked in at around 10 p.m., Goff said. At 11 p.m., neighbors reported a fire on Agnew Road.
Laura was crushed. It had been less than two weeks since her father had gone missing after going out to drinks with friends. Laura used to call him nearly every day to chat, but as she called over and over again, he didn’t answer.
Eventually someone picked up. A police officer.
“When they answer, you’re already thinking the worst,” said Laura.
The officers found her father in a crashed 2004 Mercury Mountaineer about 15 minutes from their home. It’s unclear what happened, but the family suspects his designated driver simply lost control of the vehicle. Andres V. Cabrales was 54.
Walking through the doorway five days after the fire, Laura motioned to an indistinguishable pile of rubble in the back left corner of what was once the living room.
“That’s where my father used to sit on the couch and watch TV,” Laura said. “That’s where he would say hi to me when I would come home.”
A family and its community
In the days after the fire, the family continued to hold daily rosaries in commemoration of Cabrales, bringing friends and family together to pray and share meals for nine days. They were always well attended.
Laura’s family have lived in Hermiston for generations. She estimated they have at least 100 local family members, many of whom work in agricultural facilities like Lamb Weston. Maria Leal, Laura’s mother, came from Mexico City in the mid-2000s. Cabrales lived most of his life in Hermiston.
Friends and family gathered to both mourn and celebrate Cabrales’ life. He was a man of many trades, including carpentry and farming. He worked at a winery in Paterson, Washington, and always was busy doing small jobs for friends. He enjoyed cooking for the large summertime gatherings the family held in their front lawn.
“He would always make sure everyone was having a good time,” said Laura.
Her favorite thing to do with her father was travel. “It would feel like we would get closer, as a family,” said Laura, recalling trips to Sacramento and Boise. “We were close, but it would bring us closer.”
Word of the family’s tragedy spread across Facebook. Laura created a GoFundMe to raise money for the funeral expenses. It was shared many times and raised more than $1,000.
Then, group leaders with Rayito de Luz, an organization dedicated to helping families in times of need, heard about what happened. They planned a fundraiser outside of Irrigon for the following weekend.
“These usually take weeks or months to organize,” said Felipe Chavez, one of the organizers of the event. “But for this family, we needed to pull everything together.”
Six days after the fire, at least 70 people gathered with the family in a large shed among the sprawling farmlands outside of Irrigon. The room was hot from the tacos, tortas, quesadillas and soups that filled the air with the smells of grilling meat. They sat around picnic tables covered with light blue tablecloths, sipping horchata and other beverages as Latino music played from speakers overhead.
The Leals dished out meals, cracking smiles and laughing. Maria Leal, moving gingerly after injuring her knees during the fire, brought around piping hot bowls of soup. Laura helped prepare tacos when lines grew longer.
The event raised more than $7,000 for the family, Chavez said.
“It’s sad you don’t realize how good of neighbors you have until something like that happens,” Laura said, adding, “You feel really loved, lucky to have everyone, and happy knowing that you have a lot of family to count on.”
‘I feel like my dad would be proud’
There will come a time when the ashes that remain of the house on Agnew Road will be moved aside, making room for a new home, the family says.
They plan to keep the property. An insurance agent will assess the damage and losses soon, but told them that recovery will be a long process, Laura said.
For now, Laura’s mother and two aunts are living with her in Boardman. Because of the fire, and the loss of her father, she and Jose are postponing the wedding they had scheduled this year. Laura said they just need time for things to settle down.
Although she was sad to see her father’s belongings lost in the fire, Laura said she feels like it was a sign to start anew. A clean slate.
“Even though we couldn’t save my dad’s stuff, I felt that it was a new beginning,” said Laura. “You know what they say about things happening for a reason? I feel like we needed a reason to start fresh.”
There is a garden in the backyard of the house on Agnew Road. It was the place Laura would work alongside her father, raising pigs and cows, growing corn, tomatoes, tomatillos, chiles, strawberries and cucumbers.
Laura’s grandfather used to take care of the garden. When he died six years ago, her father took over. Now that he’s gone, Laura feels a responsibility to tend to her family’s land.
Looking out toward the garden on a recent afternoon, the skies clear, a slight breeze rustling the rows of corn and nearby wheat fields, she said, “I feel like my dad would be proud.”