After house fire, giving couple accepts the generosity of others
“Within a couple minutes the whole shed went up as sort of an explosion. Almost immediately, it caught the corner of the house on fire.”
– Neighbor Eric Vonder Reith
Mark Tesch and Michelle Jerome lost just about everything.
A fire that started in the shed behind their Twisp home shortly before 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 6 raced through their house in a matter of seconds, pushed by a stiff breeze in 98-degree heat.
Firefighters from Okanogan County Fire District 6 knocked out the fire on the first floor but couldn’t douse the flames in the attic. The staircase to the attic had burned down, and firefighters were attacking the blaze through a window above the front porch. Fire Chief Cody Acord said the roof was becoming unstable.
“It was too much fire,” Acord said. “Fire was pushing in on them at the window.”
Since the firefight was becoming too risky, Acord decided to enlist fire commissioner Darold Brandenburg to knock down the house with his excavator several hours later.
By the next morning, timber, furniture, appliances and other possessions that once made the home of Tesch and Jerome were spread around their lot in a pile that still reeked of smoke.
The couple, who just three months ago had moved from Chelan into the house at 203 Methow St., were unable to dig through the piles to find what might be salvaged until the insurance adjustor arrived. To prepare for that visit, Tesch made a mental inventory of each room.
“That’s been emotionally tough,” he said. “The toothbrush is no big deal. The computer with pictures on it, that’s a little more.”
Even so, Tesch maintained the same outlook he showed just a couple hours after the fire started, when he was watching his house burn:
“There’s no need to get upset. Nobody’s hurt. The cat made it out.”
Tesch described himself as a hippie who hitchhiked to Chelan in 1974 because he heard about jobs there picking apples. He became active in that community, serving on the arts council, his church council, the Earth Day committee, the Bach Fest committee and the Lake Chelan Valley Habitat for Humanity board. That’s a partial list.
During his time with Habitat, Tesch wrote a song that is still performed every time a new homeowner moves in. He has already written a song about his Twisp home burning down.
He’s not afraid to show emotion, and the tears do come.
“The tears are from the kindness shown,” he said the day after the fire. “They’re not tears of sorrow.”
Someone brought Tesch and Jerome dinner the night of the fire. Many people have offered them places to stay. They have plenty of donated clothing. They got up to pay their bill at a restaurant to find out that another patron had already covered it.
A 7-year-old boy who lives next door walked up to Tesch as he was sorting through piles of wood.
The boy handed Tesch three dollars.
“You guys should get paid,” Tesch remembers the boy saying. “You’ve had some tough luck.”
Now that they are in the Methow Valley, Tesch and Jerome will continue to contribute. Tesch starts teaching at Little Star Montessori School this fall, and Jerome plans to volunteer at a couple organizations.
For the moment, they need to accept the generosity of others.
“It’s our turn to be humble,” Tesch said. “It’s hard to receive when you’re used to giving.”
A GoFundMe campaign has been set up at gofundme.com/mark-and-michelles-home-rebuild.
The insurance company sent an investigator to Tesch and Jerome’s house over the weekend. Fire investigators typically spend four or five hours at a burned house. This one visited for one-half hour and told Tesch what he already knew: The fire started from spontaneous combustion of rags in the shed that were soaked with a wood-conditioning solvent.
Dangers of solvents & yard waste
• Green waste and other organic debris dumped in your yard can fuel a fire and put your home at risk.
• Drop off green waste — separated from garbage — at Twisp Transfer Station, 12 Twisp Airport Road.
• Cost is the same as garbage drop-off: $15.54 for up to 360 pounds.
• Do not burn yard waste during the current burn ban.
Source: Okanogan County
• Solvents such as Benite are highly volatile and flammable.
• Solvent-soaked rags can burn spontaneously, even at normal temperatures.
• After treating wood, hang or spread rags outside to dry.
• Store dried rags in a closed metal container with water and detergent.
Source: National Fire Protection Association
Also in the shed were the container of wood conditioner, called Benite, and several cans of spray paint. The neighbor who called 911 reported an explosion.
Neighbor Eric Vonder Reith, who lives in a yurt he is building on Lincoln Street, was likely the first person who saw the fire. He coordinated with another neighbor, who made the call to 911. Vonder Reith grabbed a garden hose to protect his property from flames that were advancing up the hillside behind Tesch and Jerome’s house.
“I heard a pop,” Vonder Reith said. He thought it sounded like a truck backfiring or a gunshot — “but not quite.”
“I saw the front of the shed on fire,” he said, and he thought a barbecue had gotten out of control.
“Within a couple minutes the whole shed went up as sort of an explosion,” Vonder Reith said. “Almost immediately, it caught the corner of the house on fire.”
Vonder Reith said it was “shocking” how fast the fire spread through the house.
“Less than a minute, and the whole house was torching,” he said.
The first fire truck arrived 11 minutes after the 911 call, Acord said. Eventually, 24 firefighters responded from all four District 6 stations. The state Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Forest Service responded, positioning themselves on the other side of the Methow River in case any fallout from the smoke column started a brush fire there, Acord said.
Firefighters emptied a water tanker, then tried to hook up to a fire hydrant at the corner of Methow and Third Avenue, about 150 feet from the house. The hydrant, installed in 1949, broke when firefighters tried to open it.
The delay that followed, as firefighters rushed to find other hydrants, affected the firefight, Acord said. The fire inside the house was able to build momentum after what would have been a 30-second pause, switching from truck water to hydrant, became a delay of several minutes.
Brandenburg’s excavator allowed firefighters to finish their job more quickly. They left the scene around midnight, Acord said.
For their parts, Tesch and Jerome are looking ahead. Tesch was a building contractor, and his son is an architect. They are already designing the couple’s new home, to be built on the same lot.
“We like the neighborhood,” he said. “It’ll be a smart, energy-efficient house” with gardens, terraces and solar panels—at least as he and his son drew it up this past weekend.
“It’s the dream house we never dreamed of.”