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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Family celebrates their new baby’s first Christmas after losing everything in devastating Malden fire

New father Jason Hoover, left, holds 2-month-old Clara Jean Hoover inside the fifth-wheel trailer that he shares with fiancee Sage Butler, right.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

In January, when Sage Butler found out she was pregnant, she went through all the normal excitement and nerves that come with having your first baby.

But the following 12 months were full of one disaster after another, from pregnancy complications to their house burning to the ground. Now, Butler, 21, and her fiancé, Jason Hoover, 25, are just thankful they are able to celebrate Christmas with their healthy baby girl.

Butler moved to Malden in middle school after her dad, Jason Butler, decided to buy a 1909 fixer-upper across the street from her grandparents’ home.

Two years later, Jason Butler and his wife, Sandra, were working on the oil fields in South Dakota when he had a heart attack and died at 43. He had been a medic in the army, a volunteer firefighter and a loving father, Butler said.

At age 15, Butler started living in the Malden house by herself on and off, with her grandparents nearby.

“It was a big, two-story corner house with a large yard,” Butler said.

She graduated high school and became a certified nursing assistant before getting a job at Tekoa Care Center.

There, she met Hoover, who was working in the kitchen. Hoover grew up in California, where he had a rough life, with a father who dealt with substance abuse issues. Hoover was struggling his junior year of high school and decided he needed a change, he said. So he moved north to Tekoa and repeated 11th grade.

“After graduating high school, I went to work as most people do in those small towns,” Hoover said.

A few years went by and he got a job at the care center.

“I had noticed her,” Hoover said of Butler. “She hadn’t really noticed me because she was doing her own thing.”

After about a year as co-workers, Hoover messaged Butler on Facebook and they have been together ever since. That was about two years ago.

When Butler found out she was pregnant, she was working at Eastern State Hospital and Hoover was working at Napa Auto Parts.

“We were just going to try to figure out finishing fixing up the house,” Butler said.

When her father had bought the home in Malden, it still had knob and tube wiring and no insulation, Butler said. But Hoover was handy around the house as a self-taught mechanic and woodworker.

They started repairs on the house and began planning for their baby girl’s arrival, but one stressor remained: They couldn’t get anyone to insure the home, Butler said.

Insurance companies kept finding reasons to deny them, like moss on the roof or an ill-fitting electric box cover, Butler said.

“The house was built in the 1900s, and we were probably going to be 20 grand in by the time it was fixed up to the point where they would insure us,” Hoover said.

Early in her pregnancy, Butler was diagnosed with hyperemesis, which is an uncommon disorder during pregnancy marked by extreme and persistent nausea and vomiting. Butler had to stop working.

“I actually had to dose myself with IV meds because I was sick all the time,” she said.

A few months later, in July, Hoover was fired from his job. By Labor Day weekend, the couple was unemployed and Hoover was struggling to find work because of the pandemic, he said.

On Sept. 7, the couple drove up to Spokane for a family barbecue, leaving their pit bull Coco and smaller dog Cookie at home.

At about 1 p.m., Butler’s uncle sent them pictures of the smoky sky.

“They said we might need to evacuate, don’t know yet,” Butler recalled.

Less than an hour later, Butler’s uncle had loaded their dogs and his elderly neighbor into his car to evacuate, she said.

“My uncle, just from doing that little bit within that hour, he was driving over flames when he left,” Butler said. “It all went up in less than an hour.”

The couple was shocked that the fire was burning toward their home, which stood on a hill.

“Everybody told us the wind doesn’t blow that way,” Hoover said. “I walked out the door that morning and said, God, the wind is blowing hard and it was blowing uphill.”

They held out hope their home would survive until a radio station in Pullman posted photos of the smoldering town, including one of what had been their driveway. It was clear that everything was gone, Butler said.

“I broke down,” Butler said, tears still welling in her eyes as she talks about the moment months later.

Hoover said his initial reaction was anger: He punched a wall, cried and then called his mom.

“Life hasn’t been easy for me, so I asked all the questions that we all ask,” Hoover said. “Why always me?”

Then came the fear that Butler would go into preterm labor. Their baby had been diagnosed with a cystic abnormality on her lung, which could have caused a collapsed lung at birth.

“Everyone was really scared for me because that’s a very stressful situation,” Butler said. “I was eight months, and people were afraid I was going to go into early labor.”

The couple stayed at Butler’s aunt’s house that first night, then went to see the wreckage the next day. The hardest part was thinking about everything they had lost, including family heirlooms and supplies for the baby, Butler said.

“We didn’t have a whole lot, but what we did have was sentimental,” Butler said.

“We had my baby brother’s crib and his bassinet,” Hoover said. “We weren’t stocked up well yet, but we had a lot compared to nothing.”

Both items were built by Hoover’s grandpa, who had died. Butler’s father’s ashes, army memorabilia and her grandfather’s tools were gone.

In the weeks after the fire, Hoover and Butler lived in a hotel provided by the Red Cross and started planning their next move. Initially, they thought about putting a trailer or temporary tiny home on their lot in Malden, but the most realistic plan was to buy an old RV and move to a campground, Hoover said.

Friends and family donated to a GoFundMe page for the growing family and neighbors bought items from their baby registry.

“The community of that area, so all the small towns, came together and next thing you know we had a TV, clothes, shoes,” Hoover said.

A local veterans group helped get Butler a replacement honor flag and medals to remember her father. Her grandmother, Cindy LaMontagne, went to the burned-out house and gathered ashes from near where her father’s original urn would have been, just so Butler would have something to put in a new one. Butler’s mother, Sandra, had a baby blanket handmade that burned in the fire, but when the artisan who made it heard about the fire she remade the blanket for free, Sandra said.

“I and our family have done what we can to help, but I am so grateful for all those who have opened their hearts to the needs of the families that lost our homes in Malden,” Sandra said.

They raised about $5,000 from family and friends to buy an RV. They found one listed for sale online and after the seller heard their story, he sold the young family a 28-foot RV for $1,000 less than his original asking price.

Just days after they purchased the RV, Butler began having contractions at 38 weeks. She went to the hospital to get checked out and her blood pressure had skyrocketed, Butler said.

She was induced on Oct. 9, and later that day Clara Jean Hoover was born.

“We wanted a sentimental name,” Butler said.

Clara was Hoover’s great-grandmother’s name and Jean was Butler’s great-aunt’s middle name.

“I went up to the NICU with her and I almost started crying,” Hoover said. “A lot of overwhelming emotions: The whole month had been crazy for us.”

Luckily, Clara was healthy and didn’t have lung issues.

Hoover watched his daughter’s birth, slept for a couple of hours, then picked up the RV and took it to the KOA Journey campground in Spokane Valley. Butler’s grandmother began setting up the trailer, while Hoover went back to the hospital, where Butler had developed an infection.

She was on an antibiotic drip for 48 hours straight to clear up the infection, Butler said. Then she had blood pressure issues.

Five days later, the family came home to the RV.

“I had all these different ideas of how I wanted her nursery, all these different things we could have done for her,” Butler said. “Now, we have a corner right here for her pack and play.”

The past two months since the birth have been stressful, Butler said. It has been a long recovery, Clara has been colicky and the couple’s dogs have been restless without a yard.

“It’s been kind of stressful,” Butler said. “Going from such a big house to this, I mean, it’s tight.”

For Hoover, being a dad hasn’t come naturally, he said.

“It has been a learning curve,” Hoover said. “I was pretty freaked out about the whole thing.”

With Hoover’s own father being less than reliable, he is determined to be the opposite.

“He’s a drunk. I don’t drink. He’s a smoker. I don’t smoke. He pretty much abandoned me and my brother,” Hoover said. “I’m here, doing more than he ever did.”

Hoover hasn’t been able to find a job, but with Butler’s pregnancy complications, his help with the new baby has been monumental.

“It has been a huge help healing and everything, having him here,” Butler said.

The couple doubt they’ll rebuild in Malden, especially without federal aid to help with loans or property clean up.

“There’s just too many memories,” Butler said. “A lot of emotional value that will never be replaced.”

As things return to normal, Butler hopes to go back to school to get her nursing degree and Hoover hopes to become a welder. Their new goal is to buy a small property and slowly build their family a home, starting with a shop and then maybe a prefabricated house.

Hoover and Butler agree their days of working on a fixer-upper are over.

The new family of three plan to spend Christmas in Malden with Butler’s grandmother, who is living in a trailer on her property after losing her own house. Donations to Malden residents of Christmas gifts and food have been a huge help, Butler said.

Even with the pandemic preventing a large family gathering and without the room for a tree, Butler and Hoover are excited for Clara’s first Christmas and better years to come.

“It’s exciting,” Butler said. “In an aspect, I kind of had the feeling of, I wish we could do more, have more room, have a tree.”

“We’ll get there one day,” Hoover said. “Just not this year.”