Friday, May 09, 2014

The Fire

Paul's grandpa, Orval, built a grass-seed warehouse in 1959.  His son Wilton owned it for a number of years, then we bought it in 2000.

We bought Wilton and Anne's house that year also, which was a great arrangement, as it's less than half a mile from the warehouse.

A few years before Paul took over the warehouse, his older brother, Steve, built a pellet mill on the same property, just across the driveway to the north.  He would take the "screenings," (chaff, bits of straw, weed seeds, etc.) from our warehouse and many others, and somehow steam them and then put them through a machine that formed them into pellets.

A lot of the pellets went for cattle feed and also feed for other animals.

Here's a shot of the businesses taken a few summers ago.  Not the best shot but who thinks to take a "before" picture.  Generally, the pellet mill is to the left and the warehouse to the right.

Steve's business grew and more equipment and storage buildings were added over the years until he had some 90,000 square feet of buildings.  Steve's sons worked for him and one of them, Randy, branched out into a business of his own called RS Feed.

Paul and Steve's work didn't overlap too much but they both used Steve's truck scales, they shared storage space back and forth as supply and demand waxed and waned, and they bought, sold, and shared equipment and tools back and forth.

One of the dangers that Steve faced that Paul didn't was spontaneous combustion from piles of damp organic material--such as screenings.

He had had a few scares over the years but always managed to divert the danger by moving the hot material and putting out any hot spots.

On Tuesday evening of this week, Paul's nephew and employee, Keith Birky, came running to the front door and asked us to call the fire department.  He didn't have his phone with him, but he had seen smoke at the pellet mill.

So Paul and Keith left while I called 911.  I had always imagined 911 operators as being just as desperate about a situation as I would be, but no, first there was a recording, then some questions, then "Oh wait, you reached Lane County.  I need to transfer you to Linn County," then they weren't sure they could take me seriously because I wasn't at the scene, so I gave them Paul's number and they called him to verify things.

The sheriff came out, and two fire trucks.  Meanwhile, Steve was moving the hot pile of screenings and before long everyone was satisfied that the danger was over and the buildings were safe.  So everyone went home.

I still haven't heard if it was that exact pile that flared up during the night.  Strange, how these things work, and all the if-only's that swirl like lingering smoke.

Because often someone is there working late.  And often Randy is there at 5 a.m. And during the busy season, which is coming up shortly, someone is often there around the clock.

But that night, no one was there.

I got up a little after 6:30 on Wednesday and just a few minutes later there was a knock at the door.  It was Chepe Patzan, who delivers pallets for Smith Seed.  He told me there's a fire at the pellet mill.  I said, "Flames?  Or just smoke?"  He said, "Flames."

Oh dear.  "Should I call it in?" I asked.  He said, "I already did."

Paul was awake by this time, hastily dressing and rushing out the back door.  Paul prides himself on not getting too excited about stuff, and I accuse him of minimizing the truth, so when I called him a few minutes later and asked him how bad it was, and he said in a stricken voice, "It's awful,"  I knew it really was awful.

So I hastily got dressed and headed down as well.  The road wasn't blocked off yet but there were fire trucks everywhere, so I parked at Uncle James and Aunt Orpha's and walked down.  Orpha was outside watching and looking worried.

The firemen were setting things up at the old bridge to pump water out of Muddy Creek.


It was really, really awful.

What is it with fire, at once terrible, fascinating, powerful, consuming?

Steve looked very calm for watching years of work get destroyed.

Eight fire departments were there, from three counties.

By God's mercy, our warehouse was spared.  It was so close by, a big, airy structure, framed inside with lots of wood, 50 years old.  But the breeze, when it blew at all, blew steadily toward the north, all day.  And the firemen kept the side of the warehouse hosed down.

Also by God's mercy, no one was hurt or killed or, as far as I know, ever in any real danger.

Every so often the firemen would switch sides, first at the fire, then dousing the side of the warehouse, which you can see steaming here.
Then I went home to get Jenny off to school, and Paul too,who found it hard to leave the scene but decided to go teach anyhow.  One benefit to not getting too excited about things is that you can set aside the drama of the moment to go do what needs to be done.

The view from Powerline Road looked like this, with the sun shining behind the smoke.

For some reason there's a connection at a time like this that doesn't happen at other times.  Ernest Birky and two other men whom I didn't know were standing by the old barn, watching.  Max Coffey was standing in his driveway, drinking coffee--appropriately.  I stopped to talk with all of them.

Powerline Road; James and Orpha's house
Soon after I got home, Randy's wife Shelley stopped in and wondered if she could leave her two little girls here while she went to see what was going on.

Of course I said yes.  Charlotte cried for ten minutes and then they were both happy to be here.  Jocelyn wanted to take pictures and I couldn't believe how well she handled that camera.
Well, most of the time.

"I wanna take a picture of Gappaw!" she said.  Awww.
I served them oatmeal and tea.

Meanwhile, I was trying to keep an eye on things at the mill/warehouse, and felt a bit like Francis Scott Key, seeing what was gallantly streaming o'er the ramparts by the dawn's early light.  Only for me, it was looking for the cupola of the warehouse sticking out above the trees.  As long as it was there, I knew the warehouse was still standing.

Later, after Uncle Milford and Aunt Susie stopped in, and the girls left, I went back to look at the fire.

The firemen had set up two above-ground pool things to collect water that they pumped from the creek.
A reporter was taking pictures of the setup.  Those poor reporters.  I sympathized with them, wanting information for a meaty story, and with a deadline to meet.  But who wants to talk with them at such a time?

I chatted with the KEZI reporter who was out by the old barn.  He really wanted me, or someone like me, to make a statement on camera saying, "This is a big loss and our hearts go out to them."

Well, it didn't seem appropriate at the moment, so I didn't.  Also, I remembered that I had been in such a dither all morning I had forgotten to brush my teeth, and I wasn't about to go on TV with my teeth unbrushed.

Trying to be helpful, I directed them to a certain business in Harrisburg.  "I think they do a lot of business with Smucker Pelleting," I said helpfully. "You can probably get a statement from them."

Paul informed me later that this company is actually in competition with RS Feed and maybe wasn't the best choice for a sympathetic statement.

I think there was a lot of that sort of informing going on, as KVAL reported that Smucker Pelleting made wood pellets.  To feed animals.  Like rabbits.

The Albany Democrat-Herald had the best article, I thought.

The Register-Guard published this aerial photo.  You can see the line down the middle, with our business to the left/south, and Steve's to the right/north.

The funny patchwork field is a project of (cousin) Darrell Smucker's.

That taller section in the middle that's still standing amid the smoke was made of concrete and steel and housed the pellet-making machinery.  There's hope the equipment can be salvaged.

There's a strange juxtaposition that happens for someone like Steve and Bonnie's family in the middle of an event like this: on the one hand, the utter overwhelming relief that no lives were lost.  On the other, the shock and loss of property and livelihood, the sudden change in everything, the trauma of watching a fire devour your things.

When our van burned up many years ago, people would say, "Oh that is so terrible!" and I'd say, "Yes, but it's nothing to the fact that all of our lives were spared."  But then when people said, "At least you're all ok!"  I wanted to say, "Yes, but please acknowledge that I am traumatized down to my bones."

Hugs and cinnamon rolls say it best, I think.

Steven goes to firefighter classes in Harrisburg every week.  He said that last night, all they did was review this fire--what went right, how they could have gotten water from the creek in less time, what communication glitches came up between the different departments, and how that could be improved next time.  Not that they or we weren't proud of the job they did--but they always try to learn and improve.

We hope there's never a next time.  But we're grateful for capable firefighters, in case there is.

Thanks to everyone who called, messaged, and prayed.  You can keep praying for Steve and his sons who lost their livelihood.  And for Bonnie, who is trying to cope with this and also has two children getting married in the next five weeks.

And we can all give thanks for everyone and everything that could have been lost, and was spared.


  1. So sorry for the loss! My husband's sister's family lost their house/cabinet shop complex to fire a month ago, and it's been quite a journey of accepting loss. But also amazing how generous and kind folks have been!

  2. It's such a sad loss. I remember the feeling when I lost many of my personal items in a fire. I was in voluntary service at the time. I felt like crying and going home. But no one was hurt. And many people contributed generously to compensate for the loss. May the Lord comfort all who have experienced the trauma of loss in this devastating fire, as well as those who suffered fear of even greater loss, as the fire raged. LRM

  3. So grateful that we have wonderful firefighters to help at times like this.

  4. Oh, my. "A time to weep . . . a time to mourn," lists Ecclesiastes 3:7. This is surely one of those times! I hope the owners who lost businesses and livelihoods will take time to do just that, for their own emotional relief. I only discovered this story earlier this morning (Friday) after I got up and checked your blog. It is a shock and a terrible loss.

    When I was 15 our two-story farm home burned to the ground on a blustery March afternoon when a stiff wind whipped up the flames into an all-consuming wall of fire. We lost everything. I can identify with the sick-to-your-stomach, weak-in-the-knees trauma that these families are going through right now.

    I will pray for the comfort, peace, encouragement, and provision of the Holy Spirit to sustain them as they regroup and look to God for guidance and wisdom in figuring out what to do next.

  5. wow, thank you for sharing this story. I am very afraid of fires, but I appreciated your realistic way you told your story. As always, I think you are a wonderful storyteller. I'm so sorry for this loss.

  6. So sorry to hear about this. I know its traumatizing but im glad yall are ok. God is with you through this and that is a comfort.

  7. Crystal Arreola5/10/2014 2:35 PM

    Im really sorry to read about what happened, will pray for you guys, wish there was something more I could do.

  8. Dorcas- I saw the smoke plume from my house a few miles south of you early that am. I knew it was a neighbor... just not sure which one! Glad the warehouse was spared! I have to laugh at the misinformation given about your pelleting operation. Typical for the media out of Eugene! You are blessed with your gift of seeing some humor and sharing truth in all that you do! I agree, in such a situation Cinnamon Rolls would help me deal with the situation!

  9. I am so curious about that patchwork field - demands an explanation, I think. Mind sharing more about it? It looks like something one might see on an Agricultural experimental farm.

    Sorry for the loss but am glad no one was hurt.

  10. I am so sorry about the fire. My late Mother-in-law's family home burned to the ground when she was 5 and she never got over it. She wished for her favorite doll that was lost for her entire life. It always made me wish I could somehow give it back to her. It will take time to heal. Hugs to you all even though you do not know me.

  11. This past Sunday a video was posted at the link I will provide which is a hymn of great encouragement, as sung by a skilled Mennonite choir. The music, scenic background, and reminder of the promise of I Peter 5:7 all combine to make this video a wonderful rest for the weary soul. As I listened and watched, I could not help but think that it might be a comfort and a blessing to those families who lost so much in that terrible fire last week. Here's the link which you'll need to copy and paste into your browser:

    Note: Just in case the video is no longer in the top position on the blog where it is posted, please be sure to scroll down to the date of May 11, 2014 to view the video that is so encouraging. God bless!