In the Margins: Can’t we find better ways to celebrate a birthday?
We returned to Gig Harbor at the end of June after a family vacation in the north woods of Canada’s Great Lakes region. Unfortunately, this year the typically fresh lake air and photogenic views were compromised by a gray layer of noxious wildfire smoke from northern Ontario. It reminded us of Puget Sound’s summer of 2020, when rampant wildfires in British Columbia and elsewhere robbed us of our blue-bird days.
To return home from SeaTac, my wife and I called Gig Harbor Taxi and waited by the curb, appreciating the cooler marine air of Puget Sound. A stream of cars trolled through the airport’s arrival terminal in search of familiar passengers. When our taxi arrived, we were pleasantly surprised by one of those small-world moments — our driver was a friendly face from our distant past.
Louise Ross opened the rear hatch of the taxi, and we all suddenly stopped in our tracks. “Wait, I know you!” we all said in unison.
During that ride home, we reminisced about how Louise, a neighbor who once had a horse arena north of Gig Harbor, had trained our young daughter in the finer skills of horseback riding. Some of Louise’s students went on to become accomplished equestrians and horse breeders.
I was always thankful that our daughter enjoyed riding but stopped short of wanting to own a horse. Whew! Louise was savvy enough to require her young protégés to earn their riding time by mucking out stalls and caring for the horses. Thankfully, my daughter realized that for every idyllic moment of cantering in the saddle, she would need to spend hours shoveling manure from the barn.
After Louise dropped us off, we vowed to stay in touch. A week later, on July 5, the phone rang. It was Louise. Her normally cheerful voice was muted, tearful, and cracked. She strained to find words. Her house in Olalla had burned down on the afternoon of July 4. In less than an hour, her home had been transformed from a pleasant rural rambler and mini-ranch into a charred smudge on the landscape. Today it’s something insurance adjusters call “a total loss.”
Fourth of July disaster
On July 4, Louise had spent the day babysitting her granddaughter like she does every Tuesday. When she returned home at 3 p.m., she saw smoke coming from behind her home.
“Who in the world would be burning today?” said the voice in her head. When she walked around the house, she saw tentacles of burn trails in the grass. She was horrified to see flames leaping from three cords of neatly stacked firewood about 60 feet behind the home. The logs had been cleared and bucked up to make way for gardens, a horse pasture and driveways. At 3:07 p.m. she called 911; about 15 minutes later, South Kitsap Fire and Rescue arrived.
In the backyard, the fire scene went from bad to worse. Tendrils of fire ran through the grassy field from the wood pile to her deck. Flames were engulfing the cedar deck and crawling up into the eaves on the back side of the house. Smoke was billowing into the home and caused her to retreat quickly from the deck.
When she jumped, something in her knee snapped — a torn ligament. She forced herself back onto her feet and to the front door of the home. She knew her cat Rembrandt — a large Maine coon she adopted three years ago from Russia at age 5 months — was inside.
Looking for Remy
At the front door, she felt for heat. She knew that opening a door during a fire could be dangerous, but she needed to call for Remy. She opened the door and called for the cat. No response.
Later, she would learn that he was hiding under her bed. Once the fire was controlled, firefighters were able to pull the cat from the charred wreckage. His enormous body was a limp rag of matted fur, covered in extinguishant foam, water, and smoke residue. Only when he moved did they realize he was still alive.
The family rushed him to Puget Sound Veterinary Specialty and Emergency in Gig Harbor, where he spent days getting oxygen chamber treatments, two stomach surgeries, and treatment for a broken leg.
Louise’s other animals
During the fire, a waft of black smoke drifted south to engulf a small horse barn that Louise had hand-built for Tucker, a handsome 4-year-old Kentucky mountain saddle horse.
“I knew I had to move my horse to a fenced area and away from the barn,” she said. Her son arrived and was able to help. “The horse broke out of the fence and went back to the barn — it’s just what they do.”
Eventually, firefighters contained the blaze and prevented the fire from threatening neighboring homes. Their work saved a cat, the barn, a horse, and pair of goats named Bud and Weiser.
Louise was able to safeguard her animals and salvage some of her belongings, but most of the trappings of her life were swallowed by fire and water. Her kids helped her find a few landscape paintings that she recently created after watching some online videos from Bob Ross (no relation). “One of the paintings was ruined, but I hope the others will dry out. I’ve only done four paintings in my life — it was back when I did not have a horse.”
As previously reported by our GH Now crew, investigators determined the fire originated in the backyard wood pile. Since the carefully stacked pile of fir was in an isolated clearing far from any activity, reasonable speculation is that the fire was sparked by errant fireworks, perhaps the aerial mortars that were being launched by some nearby celebrants. Louise and the firefighters will never know for sure, but they know the pain that can come from a catastrophic fire on the Fourth of July.
Last week, I stopped by Louise’s home to see the aftermath. The smell of smoke permeates everything. The innards of the house look like a neglectfully burnt marshmallow. The scene is one of life rudely halted in mid-step. Unsent mail on a desk. Folded laundry. A white kitchen cabinet of food amid a charred pile of rubble. Perhaps firefighters get accustomed to these scenes, but we should not.
When I visited the horse barn, Tucker sauntered over to greet me with an appreciative nod from his large gray nose. I spotted an apple on a nearby shelf and offered it to him. He inhaled it in two bites, winked his big eyes, and nuzzled my shoulder. He’s going to be fine.
With a little help from her friends and neighbors, Louise too will recover, but it won’t be easy. She and her cat are both limping back into life in hopes of regaining some sense of normalcy. Her friends and family have created this Go Fund Me site to help her rebuild her life and home.
No way to celebrate
I can’t help thinking that we certainly should find better ways to celebrate the birth of our nation. Large aerial fireworks are thrilling theater, but let’s stop indiscriminately igniting spark-spreading, explosive toys during burn ban conditions that often come with summer in the grassy woodlands of Puget Sound. Tucker, Rembrandt, my own dogs, and some of our wartime veterans will appreciate it.
It’s the least we can do for the woman who helped me avoid having to buy a horse for my daughter in 1997.