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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Family fled home just minutes before Beacon Hill fire destroyed it

For most of us, Sunday’s Beacon Hill fire was a plume of smoke on the horizon.

Karl Landrus and his wife, Karen, watched the fire out their front window, burning directly toward them as it climbed from the grass into treetops.

“It crested over the hill on top of Mount Baldy,” Landrus said. He lives on a knob of hill sometimes called Little Mount Baldy; the two Baldys sit just north of Beacon Hill, in a wooded, hilly area east of Hillyard.

“It started burning trees, crowning ’em, and the wind was blowing in our direction,” said Landrus, 59. “It didn’t look too good. … It was really raining hellfire.”

Landrus, his wife, their grandson and their dog, Linus, jumped in the truck and fled, minutes before the fire burned through their home, taking a path between the neighbors on either side. By Monday morning, the Landruses’ home was leveled, the surviving brickwork standing sentinel over blackened, smoking ruins. A Subaru skeleton sat in the driveway; ash floated on the surface of the backyard pool.

The Landruses left so quickly they couldn’t even rescue personal belongings.

“Nothing,” Landrus said.

The fire that took their home left their immediate neighbors mostly untouched; blackened earth surrounded the home to the south, leaving relatively minor damage to a deck and exterior walls. The home’s owner, Mark Walker, stood on his ruined back deck Monday. Melted vinyl siding drooped on the walls.

“You can see it went all around us,” he said, pointing to the blackened grass just inches outside his small fence and lawn. “We feel very fortunate God protected our house.”

This was a common pattern in the Beacon Hill area Monday morning – the blackened pathway of the fire snaking around little-touched fields and homes – as firefighters continued working and residents surveyed the damage. It’s too early to say exactly how the fire started and grew, but more than one firefighter observed that some of the differences boiled down to questions of “defensible space” – how much homeowners had buffered their homes from fire danger by reducing trees and other fuels around their homes.

“Defensible space and not,” one said. “That’s the emerging pattern.”

The fire burned about 150 acres and two homes Sunday, but was mostly under control by Monday morning. At another home that burned to the ground on North Thierman Road, just down the hill from the Landruses, two men stood staring into the blackened pit of the basement, stunned. “Can’t hardly think straight right now,” one of them said, declining an interview.

The Landruses have lived in their home since 1991. Karl is a former professional motocross racer who did custom metal fabrication work on motocross bikes in a shop at his home, and Karen is a reading specialist at Adams Elementary. Karl and his late father, Earl, did a lot of the original work when the home was built – including his dad’s finish work inside.

“It was kind of a family-built thing,” Karl said.

Among the belongings lost in the fire were Karl’s shop and motocross bikes – his own bikes and work he was doing for clients. He said he had just finished a custom 1965 bike that was worth around $10,000.

“It melted down,” he said.

He said the home was insured, but didn’t know how much of the damage – such as the bikes – would be covered. His daughter-in-law established a Gofundme account to help the couple recover; the page for the account said Karl’s metal fabrication equipment and materials were worth $100,000.

Landrus had hoped that the water in his pool would help firefighters save his home; he had pump equipment added to his property when the home was built to allow the pool to be drawn on for firefighting. He said he wasn’t blaming firefighters, but wondered whether they were aware of that resource and whether officials can ensure firefighters are aware of them for other homeowners in rural areas in the future.

But he said he also knows that the fire presented a challenge.

“It was just moving so fast,” he said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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