Community Police & Fire

Victims begin recoveries from back-to-back house fires

Posted on July 12th, 2023 By:

Flames destroyed a Peacock Hill Road home on the Fourth of July and another in Key Peninsula’s Palmer Lake area the following night. An elderly man and pets died in the latter blaze. A woman in each incident lost their residence and belongings. Efforts have emerged to help them.

At 3:54 p.m. on Tuesday, July 4, South Kitsap Fire & Rescue was dispatched to a brush fire near the north end of Peacock Hill Road. It was quickly upgraded to a residential structure fire. The first units arrived in 13 minutes. Within 10 minutes of being on scene, the roof partially collapsed, and firefighters were pulled outside for their safety. They continued to battle the stubborn fire defensively, employing multiple strategies and tactics before finally putting it out, according to a fire department post.

Louise Ross' Peacock Hill Road home smolders after a fire on July 4.

Louise Ross’ Peacock Hill Road home smolders after a fire on July 4.

Louise Ross, 68, lived in the home with her Maine Coon cat, Remy. She had been away Tuesday babysitting her granddaughter.

“As she pulled into the driveway, she could see there was some smoke that looked like it was coming from behind the house,” said  daughter Diana Perrault. “She immediately thought she’d better call 911. She wanted to go in the house to see if the cat was OK. She opened the front door and a whole bunch of smoke came pouring out at her. She realized it was too hot and smoky for her to be standing there.”

Louise Ross with Remy after firefighters pulled her Maine Coon cat was pulled from the rubble.

Louise Ross with Remy after firefighters pulled her Maine Coon cat from the rubble.

Fleeing the heat, Ross tripped and fell, injuring her knee, but remained on scene to await Remy’s precarious fate. Two hours later, a firefighter walked out carrying the wrapped-up cat like a baby and delivered him to her. Remy, drenched by sooty water and foam, had been hiding under a bed in a corner of the house.

“My mom really broke down in tears when she saw him,” said Perrault, of Seattle.

Firefighters gave Remy oxygen and he was rushed to Puget Sound Veterinary Specialty and Emergency. A son drove Ross to the St. Anthony Hospital emergency room. She’s in a wheelchair and can’t walk or drive.

The home’s walls are still standing, but the roof caved in and the center burned out. The contents that survived were ruined by water, foam and smoke. The insurance company deemed it a total loss, Perrault said.

A firefighter carries a drenched Remy out of the house.

A firefighter carries a drenched Remy out of the house.

The Kitsap County Fire Marshal’s Office hasn’t determined a cause. Investigators believe it started in a woodpile, but found no ignition source, Perrault said. She suspects fireworks sparked it because it was the Fourth of July and neighbors told her people had been lighting them off.

“My own personal opinion is that fireworks is the most simple explanation,” she said.

Ross and Remy are staying nearby with a friend. A taxi driver, she won’t be able to work for a while. She’ll need funds to pay the mortgage and other expenses not covered by insurance. Several people have offered items. Donations can be made here.

Ross bought the 1,800-square-foot manufactured home on 2.5 acres in January 2022 and carved out a mini-farm.

Everything inside the Ross house was destroyed.

The house and its contents were a total loss.

“She’d done a ton of work to the home and the property, improved it, updated it and also did a lot of work to make it appropriate to have a horse and goats,” Perrault said. She cleared and fenced and built a small barn for the animals, which weren’t injured by the fire. “That’s exactly what she wanted. She likes that farm situation.”

Sharing her mom’s misfortune heightened Perrault’s awareness of emergency preparation.

“Just asking people to be extraordinarily safe this summer in the dry conditions with fire or celebrations,” she said. “I think also check your insurance policy and really get an understanding of the coverage you have versus what you would need if a disaster struck. And the third thing is get to know your neighbors. It’s so helpful that they know what’s going on and can keep an eye out for you.”

The next night

At 10:57 Wednesday night, Key Peninsula Fire responded to a fire and explosion in the 1600 block of Lake Drive, near Palmer Lake. Crews arrived to find a single-wide mobile home fully in flames. Residents Howard Johnson and adult daughter Barbara Chase were out on the street, said spokeswoman Anne Nesbit.

An airlift helicopter was immediately called and flew Johnson to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He died Thursday afternoon. A Gig Harbor Fire & Rescue One medic unit took Chase to Tacoma General Hospital. She was transferred to Harborview, released and is staying with friends.

Howard and Diane Johnson and daughter Barbara Chase.

Howard and Diane Johnson and daughter Barbara Chase.

After confirming no people were inside, firefighters took a defensive stance to keep the quick-burning fire from spreading. The explosion “pretty much took out the whole back half of the house,” said Nesbit, who suspects the fire caused the explosion instead of the other way around. It’s not known what exploded. “Everybody’s guessing it was a propane tank,” said Nesbit, who hadn’t yet seen a report from the Pierce County Fire Marshal on the cause.

Two brown Labradors and a cat died in the fire.

Community has rallied to help

“There’s been a wonderful group of people who have rallied around her, getting things like a new phone, glasses, clothes, support in every way,” Nesbit said.

Airlift helicopter for Howard Johnson

Howard Johnson was flown to Harborview Medical Center, where he succumbed to his injuries the next day.

Susan Freiler Mendenhall, who is helping to organize support for Chase, wrote on the Key Peninsula, Washington Facebook page she administers that Chase moved to the area four to five years ago after her mother Diane died to care for Howard. Residents have provided her immediate needs, such as a phone, eyeglasses, clothing, food and care of her chickens.

Chase known for helping others

“You may know her from LuLu’s (Homeport restaurant) or from her generosity as a newcomer to our community,” Mendenhall wrote. “When I look back on my messenger communication with Barbara, it’s all about her asking how she can help others in need. Now Barbara needs our help and support.”

Dan Whitmarsh, pastor of Lakebay Community Church, set up a gofundme page for Chase. In it, he states that, “The Johnsons have been dear friends to many in our KP community, supporting people through food distribution, prayer support, addiction sponsorship and offering a listening ear and word of encouragement to anybody in need. Howard will be missed.”

Destruction from the fire and explosion.

Destruction from the fire and explosion.

” … She has a long, hard road ahead and is faced with many needs as she lost most of her possessions in the fire,” continued Whitmarsh, who couldn’t be reached by phone. “Besides rebuilding her own life, there will be medical and funeral expenses to pay for Howard.

“Many have already reached out and asked how they can support Barb. When I spoke with her she couldn’t yet name all that she will need but recognized there will be a lot of expenses, so she authorized the setting up of this site for those who would like to make a donation to help her heal and get back on her feet.”

El Sombrero Restaurant in Key Center is holding a fundraiser from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, July 13. Twenty-five percent of all eat-in or take-out sales will be donated to Chase.