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Watching everything disappear

Dan and Leanda Arlt look over the remains of their burned out rental home in Harrison on Wednesday.
Dan and Leanda Arlt look over the remains of their burned out rental home in Harrison on Wednesday. "I had to sit there and watch my house burn down," said Leanda. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

HARRISON, Idaho – Leanda Arlt started a small fire in her home’s fireplace last week, lay down on the couch, and tried to rest after her latest round of chemotherapy.

In June, the 33-year-old had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Six weeks ago her husband, Dan, lost his eye in a freak accident. What’s more, the family – with three children, ages 12, 14 and 17 – has no health insurance.

Dan, a construction worker, had to take about a month off from work after his accident, which meant that Leanda returned to work at a local bar and restaurant.

Exhausted and ill, Leanda was reclining on the couch Oct. 12. Then she looked out the window and saw low-hanging smoke pass by. When she went outside to investigate, she saw a small fire coming out of her chimney.

She screamed for help, and neighbors arrived with garden hoses. One called 911, which called St. Maries Fire District.

The neighbors – one of whom is Harrison’s mayor – kept their hoses trained on the chimney, and almost had the fire out at one point, Leanda said. “It took off in the attic, and then it was gone,” she said.

By the time Harrison volunteer firefighter Pat Graham arrived with an engine, about 18 minutes after the 911 call, “there was a 10- by 19-foot hole burnt through the roof,” he said. Graham had about 1,000 gallons of water, and he knew he had eight minutes to get hooked up to a fire hydrant before he ran out.

Just when it seemed that things couldn’t get worse for the Arlt family, they did.

When Graham turned on the hydrant in front of the house on Frederick Avenue, “there was not enough water to do anything,” he said.

“I had to sit there and watch my house burn down,” Leanda said Wednesday, surveying the charred remains of the multi-story home they rented overlooking Lake Coeur d’Alene.

First out the door with her were the family’s two dogs. Then Leanda, dressed in pajamas, and neighbors managed to grab some items: a family photo, her late father-in-law’s ashes, a treasured teapot from her collection, the dining room table.

The children were in school at the time, and Dan was at work. But word spread, and soon he, too, was watching the house burn. The family lost most everything, including Leanda’s wedding ring and chemotherapy drugs. “The only thing that didn’t burn is the wood pile,” she said.

After a week in a motel, the couple found a 700-square-foot house to rent, so small that the two oldest children will have to live with their grandmother, Linda Brownson, for the time being.

“Our goal is to have our family together by Christmas,” Leanda said.

Meanwhile, the city will investigate the problem with the hydrant.

“We’ll have to pull it out and check it out and see what’s wrong with it,” said Mayor Ron Jean Blanc.

A city worker tested the hydrant within the last year and a half, but that last test was not documented, he added.

State Rep. Mary Lou Shepherd, D-Wallace, said she’s looking into the situation to see if legislation is necessary to make sure fire hydrants get frequent inspections. “This is severe enough that something needs to be done,” she said.

By the time firefighters rolled hose from another hydrant down the street that had good pressure, it was too late.

Nonetheless, the Arlts are thankful they live in Harrison, a small community that’s already rallied around them once to help with Leanda’s medical bills.

Now a second fund-raiser is planned at One Shot Charlies, where Leanda works.

Leanda grew up in Harrison, but spent most of her married life away before returning two years ago from Everett.

“If this would have happened over in the city, we would never have gotten as much support,” Leanda said.

“We want to stay,” Dan said, adding that he plans to join Harrison’s all-volunteer fire department. Graham said he’d welcome the help.

“We could use volunteers desperately down here in Harrison.”