What Matters Most: Lessons learned from starting over after a fire | TSLN.com

What Matters Most: Lessons learned from starting over after a fire

The Fish Fire near Sundance, Wyoming, in August, 2022, from Halversons' current home. The fire was about 8 miles away, and brought back memories of the March 6, 2021 fire that burned their home. Photo courtesy of Jessie Halverson.
Be Prepared -Check into Firewise guidelines and make sure your home is easily defensible. If firefighters have to decide how to allocate resources, they will defend the home where they are most likely to be successful. -Make a list of things to grab in an emergency. -Check your insurance coverage with your insurance agent, and itemize anything that would be over the category minimums. -Keep fire extinguishers in all vehicles and machinery. -Replace smoke detector batteries on schedule.

It’s her wedding ring Jessie Halverson regrets about the aftermath of the fire that burned their house.

On March 6, 2021, Jessie and her husband James were fixing a well about half a mile from the house. Earlier in the day they’d gotten a call from family, asking if they were in the path of the fire that came across the scanner.

They thought the answer was no.

But when they got done fixing the well and came out of the canyon, they could see black smoke from the direction of their house.

“My husband and I raced home. We were starting to see flames coming up out of the canyon probably 300 yards west of our house. My husband got the kids, who were playing in the shop, while I went in the house, and started grabbing what I could think of.”

But when you’re in that situation, there’s not much you can think of, Jessie said.

“I’d thought of this process before. Fire is a reality.”

The Halversons’ house and shop after the fire burned through on March 6, 2021. Photo courtesy Jessie Halverson.

But in that moment, she grabbed the computers and hard drives, knowing she couldn’t replace the family photos. She grabbed her purse. After James got the kids–ages 13, 11 and 8 at the time–in the vehicle, he came in and grabbed guns and guitars.

“The wind was blowing so hard, it was hard to know how the fire was going to respond.”

James and Jessie were opening gates for livestock, and could see the smoke from their place. It wasn’t a surprise when Jessie got a call from a good friend, whose husband was a volunteer firefighter, telling Jessie, through tears, that their house was gone.

“My response was ‘it’s okay, it’s just stuff.’ I was so grateful to have my family, and nothing else mattered at that point in time.”

And she still feels that way. But she’s learned that some stuff does matter. Like her wedding ring, and her grandmother’s candy dish, the gun her dad built for her and the wrenches that wore calluses on her grandfather’s hands.

It’s been over a year since the Halversons learned they’d never walk through the door of their house again, but in many ways, they’re still sifting through the rubble.

Finding things of value

When the Fish Fire started last week, about 8 miles from their house, it all came billowing back.

The anxiety, the need to be better prepared, the fear that their family would have to go through–for a second time–something they never thought they’d go through once.

But the fire was contained, and the Halversons took the opportunity to sift through what they’ve learned. Jessie said she’s trying to figure out a snarl in their renters’ insurance. They owned the home that burned, and after a year, they had the insurance straightened out, but they aren’t ready to rebuild. So they’re renting from a neighbor, and just found out there’s an insurance map that won’t allow their company to offer renters’ insurance within a certain distance of a forest–like the Black Hills.

Jessie has a box of all the things that are irreplaceable–a much smaller box than it would have been before March 6, 2021–in the camper, ready to pull out of the yard in minutes.

Having been through the process, she knows to make lists of everything of value or importance, and to make sure the insurance company knows of everything on that list. Halversons learned the hard way that the insurance company has categories of items for replacement, like guns and jewelry. Each of those categories has a cap, if they aren’t itemized. She thinks they got $2,500 for all the guns that were lost, and similar for the jewelry.

Jessie recommends making another list, of the things that are most important, that you can grab in a minute, and taping it to the inside of a cupboard door, or a drawer, and making sure the whole family knows where it is.

Others who have been through fires have noted that not all “fireproof” safes, or gun safes are fireproof. Fires–especially housefires–can get hotter than many commercially-available safes can stand, so it’s best to take those items, or the whole safe, with you when you can.

The Halversons’ shop was still standing, but the contents were a total loss. Photo courtesy of Jessie Halverson.

Jessie stresses the importance of having an insurance agent you can ask questions of, and who will work for you and with you to keep your coverage current and adequate. Many people don’t adjust their coverage as they add value to their home or personal property, and the insurance agents don’t know to make those adjustments. Once a year, maybe when you’re changing smoke detector batteries, it’s a good idea to check on your list of personal property and update it, and submit it to your insurance agent. Most additions will cost a few dollars, if anything, but can make a difference when you’re trying to rebuild your life.

Jessie also stresses the importance of taking pictures of everything in your house and shop, including opening closets, cabinet doors and drawers.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” to try to make that list after a fire. It would be more manageable before a fire, but you always think it won’t happen to you, Jessie said.

Jessie has been keeping a spreadsheet as they get life back to normal, and she said it’s a struggle to even keep a year’s worth of possessions updated.

She also kept a notebook of all her “official” conversations in the months after the fire. “It’s such a brain buster,” Jessie said of all the paperwork and phone calls and meetings. She still has the notebook with dates and details. “It’s hard to remember everything.”

It’s easy to get caught up in regrets, but Jessie tries not to linger there. The one major regret she has is not waiting longer to remove the rubble of the house. It stood for more than a month after the fire, and they went through it to salvage what they could. Her two oldest boys wanted to go through it to see if they could find any “treasures”–belt buckles, toy tractors. There weren’t many. Her daughter, who was 8 at the time, didn’t want to go back. James and Jessie let the kids decide for themselves.

The one treasure Jessie wanted most to find was her wedding ring. They found James’s. Jessie’s was in a shot glass. She doesn’t know if the glass melted around it, or if the glass would have broken, or where the ring may have ended up in the chaos of a house fire. She wishes she would have asked someone if it would have melted completely, if it was worth looking harder for.

But at the end of the day, “It’s just stuff.” Her family is okay, and life carried on, with the kids in school, James at work and Jessie dedicating months to the details and paperwork of setting them up to rebuild.

But it still makes her sad that her grandmother’s glass candy dish, the one that was always filled with lemon drops, won’t be part of that new home. The gun her dad built for her won’t be passed down to another generation. The wrenches from her grandfather may have been buried in ash, but now they’re in a landfill.

“You have to remind yourself it was just stuff, but it’s okay to feel that loss. You have to go through that process,” Jessie said.  

How to help

Having good friends, the kind who come get your cows and feed them the day your place burns, or who take your kids to somewhere they feel safe, with people who love them, so you can take care of the immediate issues, or who bring you suppers for weeks, helps ease that loss.

“Those friends who jumped in without asking, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. It was hard to accept at the time–both James and I struggle with asking for, or accepting help–but I’m grateful for it now. But those friends who just come in and take control relieve so much burden.”

The other thing Jessie encourages when you’re not the one dealing with a loss, and you’re trying to be helpful, is to put yourself in that person’s situation. Regardless of the loss, they’re dealing with logistics, and lots of concerned friends and family, and their own grief. While everyone’s intentions are good, asking repeatedly what you can do to help, or making repeated attempts at contacting them, is sometimes more of a burden.

But at the same time, Jessie said one friend just checked in every day, and gave her a disinterested third party to vent to, so it all depends on relationships and reading the situation with empathy.

Halversons’ friends and family created a GoFundMe account, and hosted a benefit in Sundance. People James knew through his job at the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association donated a steer for a rollover auction. “We appreciated all of that so much. It was a tremendous help to get back on our feet,” Jessie said.

It wasn’t easy, but the experience drew them closer to each other as a family, and they learned to rely even more heavily on God. “I don’t know what we would have done without our faith,” Jessie said. “I often wonder how anyone gets through life without God.”

And last year, on her birthday, a little over a year after their fire, James gave Jessie a new wedding ring.

Some circles do go unbroken.