What matters most: lessons learned from restarting 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 down their home. Photo courtesy of Jessie Halverson.


It is her alliance that Jessie Halverson regrets after the fire that burned down 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 had received a call from their family asking if they were in the path of the fire that had passed through the scanner.

They thought the answer was no.

But when they finished repairing the well and exited the canyon, they could see black smoke heading towards their house.

“My husband and I ran home. We were starting to see flames coming out of the canyon probably 300 meters west of our house. My husband picked up the kids, who were playing in the store, as I entered the house, and began to type in what I could think of.

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

“I had already thought about this process. Fire is a reality.

The Halversons’ home and shop after the March 6, 2021 fire. Photo courtesy of Jessie Halverson.

But then she grabbed the computers and hard drives, knowing she couldn’t replace the family photos. She grabbed her purse. After James got the children – aged 13, 11 and 8 at the time – into the vehicle, he entered and grabbed guns and guitars.

“The wind was blowing so hard it was hard to know how the fire would react.”

James and Jessie were opening cattle gates and could see the smoke from their place. It was no surprise when Jessie got a call from a good friend, whose husband was a volunteer firefighter, telling Jessie, through tears, that their house was missing.

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

And she still feels that way. But she learned that some things matter. Like his wedding ring and his grandmother’s candy dish, the gun his father built for him, and the keys that bore calluses on his grandfather’s hands.

It’s been more than a year since the Halversons learned they would never step outside the door of their home again, but in many ways they are still digging through the rubble.

Find valuables

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

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

But the fire was brought under control, and the Halversons took the opportunity to sift through what they learned. Jessie said she was trying to figure out a problem with their tenants’ insurance. They owned the house that burned down, and after a year they straightened out the insurance, but they’re not ready to rebuild. So they rent from a neighbor and have just found out that there is an insurance card that does not allow their company to offer insurance to renters within a certain distance of a forest, such as 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 RV, ready to roll out of the yard in minutes.

Having gone through the process, she knows how to make lists of anything of value or importance and make sure the insurance company is aware of anything on that list. Halversons learned the hard way that the insurance company had categories of items to replace, such as firearms and jewelry. Each of these categories has a cap, if not detailed. She thinks they got $2,500 for all the guns lost, and the same for the jewelry.

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

Others who have been through fires have noted that not all “fireproof” safes or gun safes are fireproof. Fires, especially house fires, can get hotter than many commercially available safes, so it’s best to take these items, or the entire 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 about and who will work for you and with you to keep your coverage up to date and adequate. Many people don’t adjust their coverage because they’re adding value to their home or personal possessions, and insurance agents don’t know how to make those adjustments. Once a year, perhaps when you change smoke detector batteries, it’s a good idea to check your personal property list and update it, then submit it to your insurance agent. Most add-ons will cost a few dollars or nothing, but can make a difference when trying to rebuild your life.

Jessie also stresses the importance of taking photos of everything in your home and store, including opening cupboards, cabinet doors and drawers.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” trying to make this list after a fire. It would be more manageable before a fire, but you still think it’s not going to happen to you, Jessie said.

Jessie kept a spreadsheet while they got back to normal life, and she said it was hard to keep even a year’s worth of possessions up to date.

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

It’s easy to get carried away with regrets, but Jessie tries not to dwell on them. His only big regret is not having waited longer to remove the rubble from the house. It stood for over a month after the fire, and they walked through it to salvage what they could. His two oldest boys wanted to scour 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, did not want to go back. James and Jessie let the kids decide for themselves.

The one treasure Jessie most wanted 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 him, or if the glass would have shattered, or where the ring might have ended up in the chaos of a house fire. She would have liked to ask someone if he would have completely melted, if it was worth looking harder.

But at the end of the day, “It’s just stuff.” Her family is fine and life goes on, with the children in school, James at work and Jessie spending months on details and paperwork to prepare them to rebuild.

But it still makes her sad that her grandmother’s glass candy dish, the one that was always filled with lemon drops, isn’t part of this new home. The weapon her father built for her will not be passed on to another generation. His grandfather’s keys may have been buried in ashes, but now they’re in a landfill.

“You have to remember 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 ones who pick up your cows and feed them when your house burns down, or who take your children to a place where they feel safe, with people who love them, so that you can take care of the immediate problems, or which bring you soups for weeks, helps to alleviate this loss.

“Those friends who took the leap without asking and wouldn’t take no for an answer. It was hard to accept at the time – James and I find it hard to ask for or accept help – but I’m grateful for it now. But those friends who just walked in and took control relieved so much of the burden.

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

But at the same time, Jessie said a friend just checked in every day and gave her a disinterested third party to go to, so it’s all about relationships and reading the situation with empathy.

Friends and family of Halversons created a GoFundMe account and hosted an event at Sundance. People James knew from his work at the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association donated a steer for an auction. “We enjoyed it all so much. It has been a tremendous help in getting us back on our feet,” Jessie said.

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

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

Some circles are not broken.

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