Recovering from loss

By: 
KATIE DUNN
S-E Staff Reporter

Two lives were lost in a house fire outside of Colville on Dec. 9. Since then, surviving family members have worked to pick up the pieces.

Homeowner Patricia Johanson was asleep when the fire started. Her first thought was to extinguish the fire, but her plans quickly changed when she saw that her home was engulfed in flames. Her next move was to wake up her son, Joseph Lawson, who was sleeping in one of the adjacent rooms.

According to Patricia, the smoke was black, hot and seared her lungs as it filled her home from ceiling to floor.

She doesn’t remember much about her escape.

When she opened the front door, the fire leapt toward her, due to the oxygen, and singed her hair.

By the time she was outside, Johanson realized her son wasn’t with her.

“I realized Joe wasn’t behind me but I couldn’t go back for him,” Patricia said. “The fire was just too intense.”

Patricia said Joseph had lived with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) since 1998. There was a likely chance he fell while trying to get out.

Patricia’s granddaughter, Jennifer Brown, had been living with her, helping out with the farm.

According to Brown’s mother, Colleen Johanson–Rowell, Jennifer wanted to make Colville her home despite disliking the cold.

“She loved it here so much,” said Colleen Johnanson.

Brown’s room was in the basement of the home. She was unable to escape.

Patricia’s other son, David Lawson, and his wife Colleen, lived in an RV on the property. Everyone thought the RV was safe because of the distance between it and the fire, but that was not the case.

According to Patricia, the extreme heat caused something in the RV to ignite.

The Lawson’s had two kinkajous, a rainforest mammal often referred to as a “honey bear,” that they raised from infancy in the RV.

To the Lawson’s, the kinkajous were like children. The oldest kinkajou in captivity lived to be 40.

According to Colleen Lawson, both were lost to the fire.

After this harrowing experience, Colleen reminded families to plan and practice escape in the event of a fire.

People become habituated to their actions — in a panic they’ll fall back on what they know.

Patricia’s bedroom had a sliding door to the outside, but she never used it. When she tried to escape, she went all the way through the house to the front door.

There were always animals in Patricia’s home in different stages of recovery or growth.

“It was so much an animal sanctuary,” noted Colleen Lawson.

All indoor animals besides Patricia’s three dogs were lost in the fire.

Patricia’s daughter, Becky, also lives on the property, but her house was far enough away that it was untouched by the fire.

After losing so much, the family did find “extended family in the community.”

Recovery

A helping hand has been extended to the family every step of their recovery.

According to the family, Red Cross has played a large role in supporting them.

David said the family was “surprised and moved” by how much the Red Cross did for them. Red Cross members met the family at the hospital, where Patricia and David were being tested for smoke inhalation.

Red Cross helped secure a hotel room at Benny’s Colville Inn and provided everyone with essentials like clothing.

When David escaped the RV, he was only wearing pants and sandals. Patricia was in her nightgown and slippers.

“Everything else was gone,” David noted, adding that there was no time to grab anything else.

The owners of the Colville Inn made the 17 day stay more affordable for the Lawson’s and Johanson's, and provided them a double bedroom, so no one had to be alone.

Immediately after hearing about the fire, support from the community flooded the family.

People who experienced similar loss knew the items the family would need and were quick to provide them.

Colleen Lawson, who recently moved to Colville from Chicago, was moved by the comradery of the community.

At the time, the family’s greatest concern was finding permanent lodging.

The good news came a week before Christmas; they found a house to rent in Colville that would accept Patricia’s three dogs.

It was important for the families to live in Colville because they still need to take care of the animals on their farm.

“What a great Christmas present, knowing you don’t have to keep looking for a place to live,” said Colleen.

Now the family has a place to live while they rebuild their home.

Many thanks

On Christmas Eve, the family had heard firefighters were bringing them Christmas dinner prepared by their families. Patricia was expecting three plates filled with food, but instead, the firemen brought the whole dinner, along with all the necessary utensils and plates.

The firemen also brought an ice-chest for the leftovers, because the family was still in the hotel at the time.

The family said the entire community has been very generous, from a free car rental until they got a replacement key for David’s truck, to catering for the service after the funerals.

As much as the family can, they have been keeping track of everyone who has helped, or who has offered help.

A woman gave the family a cherry cheesecake for the holidays when they were living in the hotel. They were unable to get her name, but wanted to thank her for her thoughtful gesture.

“Right now I’m just so overwhelmed with what we’ve gotten,” said Patricia.

Over 1,500 people shared the family’s GoFundMe page, and as of Tuesday, $20,294 has been raised.

Colleen plans to update the GoFundMe page to let people know how the family is doing. This is also a way for her to share how people’s contributions have helped, or how they will be spent.

The page can be found at: www.gofundme.com/colvillefiresurvivors.

Now that the family has a home, they’re starting to gather furniture.

Kettle Falls’ Johnsyn's Trading Post has opened its entire warehouse for the family to pick through, according to Patricia.

“The community has been so generous, it has been overwhelming,” said Patricia.

Douglas Gates, the property’s caretaker, who oversees the everyday chores on the farm, was also a victim of the fire.

Gates lives in a tiny trailer on the property with mostly a bed and a hot plate. All of his belongings burned with the house.

According to Colleen Lawson, Gates was quiet about his plight. For almost a week, he was on the scorched farm taking care of things without the means to live.

“The fire is far reaching. You didn’t have to be in the fire and lose your own home to have been touched,” said Colleen.

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