Home Again on Silver Creek

The frustrations, failures and fun of rebuilding after a fire

And Now, A Word From Our Sponsors

The most surprising thing about this whole experience for us has been the generosity of our community. Our family, friends, schools, sports teams, community and even people we don’t know have been so generous with their time, things and money. The support has been humbling and we are trying to figure out a way to thank everyone, so stay tuned on that.

I plan to share a few specific stories from this support here, and will do my best to recognize everyone who has supported us.

The first story I want to share was from the day after the fire. For some reason, I thought I personally needed to go to Target and pick up some basic necessities for the family — toothbrushes, deodorant, etc. At some point during the day, someone had given me some cash, so with my cash in hand (literally –  I had no purse),  and in a borrowed car, I went to Target.

Running on no sleep and a lot of adrenaline, I navigated the store for the things we needed. I was definitely in a fog, but also liked the feeling of normal routine it brought me.

I got to the checkout and was watching the total bill for my purchases grow and grow. The final total was more than $40 higher than I could afford. I had dropped my crumpled up wad of cash on the counter to count and asked the cashier to start taking things out of the bag for me.

Just then, a woman gets into line behind me. It was my dear friend, Karin Gaertner, who was in Target picking up a few things on this Memorial Day afternoon. She gives me a big “Hey Dory!!! How’s it going?” I looked at her and completely lost it.

I proceed to have a complete melt down in the line at Target while I tell Karin the story. She’s hugging me. I’m crying. The cashier is confused, but also joins us for a hug.

Karin shoves the crumpled cash back into my hands and pays for my things. I am relieved. We say goodbye and I walk to the parking lot and suddenly stopped, and stood there hopelessly. I had absolutely no recollection of what car I was driving. I knew it was a light colored sedan, but other than that, I couldn’t remember anything about what it looked like and where I parked it.

That was the first time of many I would lose a borrowed car. I learned to use the alarm button on the fob to find my cars over the course of the next few weeks.

There was a reason Karin was there at Target that afternoon. And, it doesn’t matter which higher power I believe in — something or someone aligned the stars for me that afternoon,  I’m glad Karin was there.



Fire Up the Anxiety Level

As much as our lives are finding some routine and some normalcy, there are many things that may never be the same for us. Because the cause of our house fire has been reported as “undetermined”, it’s hard for us to not speculate on the dozens of different scenarios that could have started the fire. I’m hopeful that with some time, we’ll react better in certain situations, but for now, we find that seemingly normal, everyday things are affected by our house-fire experience. For example:

  • Fire cliches. Listen closely to day-to-day conversations. We “burn” and “fire” a lot in our daily speech. I recently had a client cut short a meeting because he had to go “put out some fires.” Someone told Annika she could “burn all her Badger t-shirts now that she’s a Gopher.” I feel the pit in my stomach grow when I hear these fire references. Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 10.49.58 AM
  • Power outage. Last weekend, a band of strong thunderstorms rolled through Stillwater. After the storm went through, we all headed to bed about 10 p.m. As we were settling in, the electricity in the house flickered on and off a few times. It finally went off. Then back on. Then off again. It stayed off at this time. Because there was no active storm in the area, we immediately thought there was an electrical problem in the house. Which means, we were all nervous there could be a fire. It turned out to be a widespread, storm-related outage.
  • Mowing the lawn. I recently spent a few hours mowing our lawn at the burnt house.  Outside of the fact that it smells and looks horrible there, it was still nice to be out on our land. When I was finished, I left the tractor outside because I was nervous to put it in the barn, afraid the hot engine could ignite something.
  • Gas fireplace. You would have thought that because our rental house has a gas, not wood, fireplace we’d feel safe. On the contrary, the eternal flame of the pilot light is actually quite disconcerting to all of us.

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    Flameless candles hold so much more appeal for me now than they did just one month ago. At this point in our life, any flame is a bad flame.

  • Fire pits. Hanna was out to eat at a restaurant recently and a little girl went running through the restaurant yelling “fire! fire!” Hanna got really nervous but quickly realized the girl was running to sit by the outside fireplace.

So if you’re ever with any of us, please be patient with any obsessive-compulsive behavior that might be tied to pyrophobia. We’re working through it, but we’ve had our fill of fire for a while.


Did you know?

Just wanted to share a few interesting facts we learned from the forensics electrical engineer after the spent a day investigating our fire.

  • Car engines. Only about half of a car engine is made of steel. That

    My car trapped under the collapsed garage roof. Although the fire investigation was inconclusive, they suspect my car was at the root cause of the fire.

    was all that remained of my car’s engine as the rest of it melted. Those parts were aluminum, plastic and other material.

  • Number one cause of garage fires. Lithium batteries are by far the number one cause of garage fires right now, according to our investigator Most commonly, it is the result of a rechargeable battery that has been left plugged in overnight and it overheats.Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 9.20.15 AM
  •  Melting point of copper. Copper wiring doesn’t melt until it reaches 2,000 degrees. I know this because the copper wiring had melted and the investigator couldn’t determine any electrical issues because there was nothing left.
  • Arc mapping. This is a technique used by forensic electrical enginers to find electrical faults or electrical arcs. Arc mapping assumes that when fire impinges on an electrical line  it will melt the wire insulation and cause an electrical fault at the first point that it reaches on the electrical line. Our garage got too hot and had too much damage to effectively do any arc mapping.

The Struggle is Real

You can see Kirk’s black Suburban sitting next to the house as the garage fire raged. This photo was taken just 20 minutes after we left the house.

Although The Struggle Is Real video is really funny –  and I’ve been known to quote it occasionally – for us, there is no irony in the saying these days.  I’m not one to complain, but even the seemingly simple tasks have been downright arduous. When we say we lost everything, we mean it. We ran out of the house in our pajamas and had nothing but the clothes on our backs. We have to replace just about all material things in our lives.

There’s one story in particular that epitomizes how tough things have been. A few days after the fire,  I stopped to get Jimmy John’s sandwiches for lunch. The boy behind the counter told me they were out of bread. Really? The sandwich shop didn’t have bread? Something as simple as picking up lunch couldn’t go my way.

But here’s a story more relevant to our rebuilding: Replacing the car keys for Kirk’s truck has taken almost a week and 5-6 hours of dedicated time. For whatever reason, Kirk parked his truck outside the night of the fire. Surprisingly, even though the truck sat very close to the house, it is in fine shape. But, the keys were in the house, so we needed to replace them.

In order to get new keys, it went like this:

  • I called the car dealer, and am told I need to show proof of ownership of the car – specifically, I need the title.
  • Luckily, the title was in the safe deposit box at the bank; I needed my photo ID to get in there.
  • So I go to the  DMV to get my drivers license replaced. Something goes my way — I just need my social security number and $15  to replace that.
  • With my drivers license in hand, I head to bank and find they don’t have a master key to the safe deposit boxes. (ours was in the house.) I have to make an appointment to have it rekeyed; the locksmith can’t come out for two days.
  • Two days later, I get the car title out of the safe deposit box.
  • I head to the car dealer and get new keys made.
  • Turns out I have to bring car to dealer to get the fob programmed.
  • From there, I need to find a ride out to the house so I can get Kirk’s car and bring it to the dealer for fob programming.
  • One week later, we finally have a key for the car.

I don’t share this story to complain, but to point out that rebuilding takes patience, flexibility and hard work. The entire family is committed and all of them have embraced these three traits – I’m so proud of all of them.


What if?

I’m not one for “what ifs”, but since the night of the fire, there are a million thoughts running through my head about what happened and how it could have had a different outcome. So, out of that, I want to share some ideas of things I’ll manage differently moving forward.

Heirloom Jewelry. I lost some lovely, sentimental pieces of jewelry in the fire, including the diamond earrings my mom gave me on my wedding day. I was the fourth generation of women in the family to have worn them. There was also the cocktail ring that belonged to my great-aunt Doc,an amazing woman who challenged the system and went to medical school back in the 1930s. We spent an entire day searching for these pieces and found nothing. It would have been simple enough to have a small fireproof safe in my bedroom that could have changed that outcome.

I will be getting a small, fireproof safe for our next home.

I will be getting a small, fireproof safe for our next home.

The Cloud. I wish I would have backed up more things to a cloud, because we’d have a chance to save more family photos, phone contacts and other archived material from our lives. We were lucky enough to find some photos from nine years ago in a Shutterfly album, which was a fun little treasure to find.

Home Inventory. It wouldn’t have been that difficult to take some quick digital photos or video of our home. It would have helped as we try to inventory our personal property and remember what we lost. It also would have been helpful to have in the rebuilding process so we could accurately describe some of our home’s features that we love.

Fire Plan. We were lucky that we were able to get out of our house safely. The fire investigator said it easily could have had a different outcome. We hadn’t ever really talked about a plan in the event of a fire. Had we all been asleep, or if the kids were home alone, some preparation like this could have made the difference.

Go Bears!

For anyone who is a Stillwater Ponies fan, those are words you don’t really want to hear, but for us, on the night of our house fire, hearing the words “Go Bears!” gave us some hope, a distraction and a sense of community.

It was probably about 3 a.m. and the firefighters were finally able to get inside the house to fight the fire. Hanna’s bedroom was at the furthest possible point from the garage, which is where the firefighters were finally able to enter the house.

Hanna’s White Bear Lake Bears hockey jersey from her U19 championship team, after being pulled from the fire.

We were camped out in our lawn chairs watching the activity when all of a sudden two fireman came running over to us and asked, “Does someone here play hockey for the White Bear Lake Bears?” Hanna responded that it was her. The two guys were so excited. They explained they were from the White Bear Fire Department (remember, there were 10 different departments called in to help), and they had been in her bedroom and saw a framed jersey.

A side note is needed here: I’m sure many of you are asking why there was a Bears jersey in our house. Well, for Hanna, wearing the Bears jersey has always come with conflicting feelings. Cut from the Stillwater High School hockey team, she found a group of girls playing u19 hockey for White Bear. Her love of the sport gave her the strength to don the Bears jersey, although she’ll always be a Pony. As the team’s assistant captain, she helped lead the team to the u19 state championship this past season.

So, back to the story. Because it was a Bears jersey, the White Bear firefighters  felt a certain obligation to save it. They smashed the frame, grabbed the jersey and ran out of the house with it. When they handed it over to Hanna, they gave us an enthusiastic, “Go Bears!”

For just a second, we all smiled. The community pride was so strong, it was a great reminder that we are so much more than the stuff in our house. We saw two fires burning that night: the one that took away all of our belongings, and the one that fuels the passion of our communities.

Go Bears!



Avoiding A Cat-astrophe

500,000 pets involved in home fires every year.  Our two cats, Bandit and Elliot, are now part of that statistic. But, with a little bit of luck and their fight-or-flight instinct, they are sitting with me now as I write this.

Before I tell you how we found them, let me start by telling you a bit about our two cats. Two brothers that we got as kittens more than 11 years ago, Bandit and Elliot have always been an important part of our family.

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Bandit loves sinks. Any sink. Kitchen, bathroom, wherever!

Bandit and Elliot are like the Oscar and Felix of the feline world.

Bandit, is the sloppy, somewhat overweight, and definitely unmotivated part of the duo. With a “meow” that could be interpreted as a bit whiny and annoying, Bandit finds his way into irritating positions every day.

It starts with his need for fresh water every morning. He’ll wait in the sink until someone turns on the faucet. He thinks he’s a great homework helper, and if there’s nothing for him to do, he’ll just make sure he’s in a
place where he won’t miss any action.

Bandit, studying history

Bandit, studying history

Elliot on the other hand, is a much more refined, intellectual cat. It may be he is channeling his name’s literary inspiration, but he always carries himself with a certain sophistication. He doesn’t have time for Bandit’s antics, and he definitely doesn’t have time for Chloe’s need to chase him around the house.

The two of them are safe and sound with us now. Here’s their story:

As we ran out of the house the night of the fire, Hanna actually stopped in the doorway before we left and called their names. Leaving them in the house might have been the single most difficult part of the fire. As we watched the flames spread and engulf our home, it was really hard knowing the cats were in there.


Annika and Elliot on graduation day.

The good PR person that I am, I stuck to my key message for the kids. I repeated this to them often until we found the cats:  “Cats are really smart and have great instinct. They will be fine. They either ran out the open door and are hiding, or found a safe place in the house.”

I didn’t even believe myself sometimes, but I had to say it for the kids.

Well, when we went back to the house the next morning around 9 a.m., the kids spent a lot of time looking for and calling the cats. Someone heard a faint meow coming from the house. The adults dismissed it as a bird, but Hanna was adamant it was Bandit.

My brother, Chris, followed through and crawled through the rubble to an open door that led to a back basement furnace room that was still intact. He went in, and came out with Bandit!! He held him high over his head like Mufasa held Simba in the Lion King. The cat was dirty, wet and smelly, but okay.

But our hearts sank again when we couldn’t find Elliot.

Elliot, nearly 48 hours after the fire started, finally leaves the house again.

It wasn’t until 36 hours later that we found him. We were at the house the following evening and I was doing some barn chores. Annika came along to look for the cat. She stood in the rubble looking and calling. She heard him! We thought he was also in the basement, so I started to go in, but once I got in the basement, I realized the “meow” was coming from above my head. Elliot had hid in Hanna’s bedroom and was okay.

Elliot right after his bath to remove the soot and smell.

The bedroom was on the second floor, so we had to get a ladder to get into the room to get him. Once again, Uncle Chris to the rescue. He entered the house and was able to get the cat.

TIP: the smoke smell can be removed from pets by using a rinse of hydrogen peroxide and Dawn dish soap.



The Fire

It’s been exactly two weeks, and I’m finally finding the time to sit down and tell the beginning of this story. As a family, we’ve decided that sharing our story will serve a few different purposes: it’s an easy way for us to share our journey in rebuilding our home, but it’s also a way for us to show our gratitude to those who have helped us along the way. We hope we can help others too by offering tips and advice about things we’re learning from the fire to the new construction.

So, follow us home again to Silver Creek. We hope we all grow, laugh and learn along the way.

SO … here’s the long story short. It started as a typical Memorial Day weekend. Kirk, Hanna, Kirsten, Tomas and I were all home — Annika was at a friend’s cabin. Hanna’s birthday often falls on the holiday weekend  – and it did this year – so we spent the day celebrating with her, including taking her out for birthday dinner in Minneapolis. We came home from dinner around 7:30 p.m.

Kirsten had gone to bed after a marathon viewing of American Ninja Warrior. Kirk, Hanna and Tomas were watching a movie in the master bedroom, and I had retreated to Tomas’ bed for some sleep.

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Chloe and Boomer started frantically barking just after 11 p.m.; it was the same time that Kirsten saw the fire out her window.

Just after 11 p.m., two things happened simultaneously: the dogs started wildly barking and I jumped out of bed, suspecting a prowler. Kirsten came running out of her room at the same moment with a look of terror I’d never seen before. She screamed that she could see flames out her window, coming out of the garage service door.

We yelled for everyone to get out and we all quickly ran out of the house into the backyard;  the two dogs ran with us.  We were so panicked, we didn’t even grab our phones.

We made it the 50 yards from the house to the barn and we turned around and looked. The garage was engulfed in flames and all sorts of popping, cracking and other eerie sounds were coming out of the garage. We  just stood there for what seemed like an eternity,  not knowing what to do.  We started yelling, hoping a neighbor could hear us, but we got no response. Kirk and Hanna decided to run to the road to see if they could flag down a car. I sat with the other kids and the dogs, trying to keep them all calm.

Standing in the road in his dark grey, Exofficio “Give and Go” boxer briefs, Kirk wasn’t really doing us any favors. Car after car sped by Kirk as he tried to get people to stop.  Frustrated, Hanna did a  400 yard dash up the neighbor’s driveway. Once she got to their house, she discovered they weren’t home. She grabbed the front door handle and realized it wasn’t locked so she ran in and called 911.

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About two hours after we discovered the fire, the home was beginning to collapse.

According to the fire department’s report, this call was made at 11:14 p.m.  (For the record, a second call came in at the same time as a welfare check for a half-naked man in the middle of Norell Avenue.) By 11:20 the first fire truck and the sheriff were on the scene. The fire captain did a quick assessment and found the garage engulfed in flames and quickly spreading.

For 10 minutes, we watched helplessly, while the fire in our home grew exponentially with every gasp of oxygen it took. The flames quickly grew  higher and higher, and moved farther and farther through the house while we waited for more help to arrive.

By 11:30, the first tanker trucks arrived and grew to include 14 tanker trucks from 10 different fire departments. At any one time, there were 20 firefighters working the fire. By dawn, they will have used more than 110,000 gallons of water to fight the fire.

My brother and my parents arrived and we huddled together, watching what turned out to be the Memorial Day bonfire of our nightmares. We found lawn chairs in the barn and set up camp in the front yard until dawn.

The nightmare continued, when at about 3 a.m., they called in a large excavator to help control the blaze. For those of you who have seen our house, you know it has a non-traditional layout. Alright, it was down-right crazy, with all the different levels, and nooks and crannies, which made the perfect house for hide-and-seek, but not for firefighters trying to find a way to stop this fire.

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The excavator tearing down the house to help control the fire.

Because there were 14 tanker trucks blocking our driveway, the excavator driver had to get creative. Right out of a horror movie, the machine came marching through the woods, picking up trees and tossing them aside to make his path.

Backlit by the many firetrucks, this giant shadow of a machine heaved its way into the smoke cloud that had settled into the yard. It began attacking the house with an army of firefighters supporting it. Our home was torn down, section by section, piece by piece.

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What was left of the garage the next morning.

By 5 a.m., it was over. As quickly as the sun rose, the 20+ emergency vehicles disappeared. We were left alone with the smoldering remains of our home.

With nothing but some borrowed clothes on our backs, we walked away from our home. We went to reflect, refresh and refuel at my brother’s home.  The story picks up again a few hours later as we begin the search for our two cats, Bandit and Elliot.