REXFORD — Andy Yoder believes there are lessons to be learned from the ashes that were once his home.
Someday soon — before anyone has a chance to begin cleaning up the charred trees, molten metal and other burned debris — the 34-year-old Amish man will take his family back to its 20-acre parcel that was ravaged on Sept. 2 when the Caribou fire tore through a portion of the state’s oldest Amish community in West Kootenai just west of Eureka.
He knows there will be tears.
But Yoder expects to find something much more important when they gather together in this place that they loved.
“I want to take that opportunity to go there and just cry together and allow this to strengthen our family relationship tremendously,” he told the Missoulian on Sept. 6. “Things like this can make us stronger by leaps and bounds like nothing else can.”
His wife, Caroline, and their three children have not returned to their home in the woods since the day they hurried away in a horse and buggy down the only road out with the roar of the wildfire filling the air around them.
The fast-moving fire destroyed 11 homes and nearly 30 outbuildings after making an unexpected four-and-a-half-mile run over the course of a few hours. Officials would tell the community later that firefighters can put in an entire career and never see a fire run like it did that day.
Yoder has been back to the place where he and his family had been carving out a new life after buying the wooded acreage a year ago. He’s still shocked by what he found.
“It was something that most people don’t ever see in their lifetime,” Yoder said. “Your everything totally flattened, just a heap of metal. There were things there that just had me at awe. The heat and the fire and wind that was involved, you could see the evidence of it.”
Trees totally stripped of their limbs, bark and needles to become a forest of blackened toothpicks. A cargo trailer with its sides completely melted. The 40-foot-by-80-foot shop with an apartment overhead was reduced to a heap of rubble.
“It was like a tornado-like picture that had fire involved,” he said. “Fire consumed every burnable thing there.”
And then, inexplicably, there was the lean-to where he stored his buggy that was left standing.
“How that didn’t burn, I don’t know,” Yoder said. “It was only 40 feet from the main structure. I saw things like that as I drove through the area that had burned. Everything totally flat, everything totally consumed and then here would be a lonely greenhouse and a garden that you could go and pick a tomato in the middle of all of this.”
“I don’t think a wildest nightmare could have dreamt something like that,” he said. “That’s why you go up there and you cry, but you’re still in awe of how powerful something like that can be.”
Of the homes that were lost, the Yoders were the only Amish family burned out. Another three single Amish men lost their homes as well. The remaining homes that burned were members of the tight-knit small community that’s located just a few miles south of the Canadian border.
In the small community where everyone waves when they meet on the road, Yoder said both the painful loss of homes and the seemingly miraculous survival of others were a shared experience.
“So when we are up there looking at what the fire had done and all of a sudden, out in the middle of all this, there’s still a home standing, we rejoice,” he said. “There’s a symbol of hope. We cheer for the family that can come home to their home. This same family will cry with us because we lost ours, but we all rejoice for what we still have. There’s been no life lost and our families are still with us. . The loss was things that can be replaced. Family can’t be replaced.”
“We’re kind of a unique community back there,” Yoder said. “There’s one road back in there and one road back out. Most people know everybody, not just the Amish. We’re helping each other all the time. So this is going to just help strengthen that relationship. Not just amongst the Amish, but through the whole community.”
“Up in West Kootenai, you wave to everyone,” he said. “I feel privileged to be part of a community like that.”
“I take him down to the lake and go fishing,” Yoder said. “The other day, he caught two grasshoppers, took them down to the lake and caught two fish and he fed two birds. So, things like that will be memories.”
The family is staying in a vacation home loaned to them by a Canadian family. Many of the Amish and other families evacuated from their homes have found similar arrangements near Lake Koocanusa.
Yoder said that generosity has made a great deal of difference in helping to soften the blow.
“Over here, you don’t see any evidence of the fire except for a few pieces of burnt bark on the ground,” he said. “So it takes the edge off of it for a time. .You learn to deal with it and try to think positive about everything, but there are times when it hits you about what actually happened and you break down. What helps . is the friends and family who open up their hearts and homes.”
All of that’s not easy to explain to a 10-year-old who is feeling the loss of the woods and pets that he loved.
Yoder’s son, Joseph, is the oldest of his children.
“My son, he thinks of things,” Yoder said. “He’s a little older. He had a couple of rabbits — pets — that didn’t make it. He’s kind of tore up about that. I try to keep his focus off of that and try to keep it on things that we still have.”
Once the evacuation orders are lifted, Yoder knows that help will be on its way. He expects the Amish community will help to clean up his property and then rebuild what was lost.
A couple of Amish men said there was already talk about building a sort of mobile home that could be pulled onto the Yoder property immediately to provide them shelter while something more permanent can be constructed.
But what can’t be replaced is his wife’s grandparents’ furniture or the wedding gifts from family that were lost.
The family didn’t have time to pack up and leave. They were placed under a pre-evacuation notice on the night before the fire made its incredible run. The frantic call for a mandatory evacuation came at about 6 p.m. the next day.
Three hours earlier, Yoder said he heard a roar and turned to see a wall of flames about two miles away.
“I just froze in my tracks,” he said. “I knew it was time to do something.”
He loaded up his wife and children into the buggy and pointed the horse down the road. He and his brother followed pulling a trailer filled with some of the family’s belongings. Wearing respirators to protect their lungs from the heavy smoke, the brothers returned to continue setting up sprinklers around the home.
Not long after that, sheriff’s deputies urged the men to flee. They took that advice and left.
“From what I can gather, the fire went through there about 30 minutes later,” Yoder said. “My wife had left already because I heard the roar, but I was told that once the fire hit the flats, it would slow down. That didn’t happen. It was an unpredictable fire.”
“You normally have days after a pre-evac to get your things together,” he said. “I told my wife to put things together like we were going on a two-week vacation somewhere. Nobody expected the worst.”
While Yoder said his wife will miss the family’s belongings that were destroyed in the blaze, the loss he felt most was his home.
“We built it together, but I did a lot of the work with the help of the community,” Yoder said. “We had a couple of frolics to do the main rough-in and then the homeowner does the trim as time and money allows you. It might be every week that something else gets put on. So there’s a real connection that you feel to our home because I built it stick by stick. And now I go back and it’s gone.”
“It was very much home,” he said. “It was all we had. We liked it there. It was quiet and peaceful.”
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