Pocatello Man Recovers from Triple Loss
Even those who don’t know Steve Leaman personally know his place. The entrance to his 22 acre Gibson Jack property was distinguished by a charming covered bridge. Over the years, it was the focal point of many pictures taken for weddings and other celebrations, and during the holidays Steve would decorate it with lights and dress up as Santa to greet sight-seers. The ground held three homes, too: his mother’s house, his sister in-law’s modular home, and near the hilltop overlooking it all was Steve’s beautiful log cabin.
Leaman was looking forward to semi-retirement after a lifetime of hard work as part-owner of John’s Paint and Glass, and sole-proprietor of a one-man landscaping business. But one spark on a parched day in late June of 2012 irreversibly changed everything.
Charlotte Takes it All
On the afternoon of June 28 Steve was driving along Bannock Highway when he noticed smoke coming from the direction of his house.
“Everyone knew my cabin was out there,” he remembers, “and my phone started going crazy. So I ran up Mink Creek to see what was going on.”
There was smoke and some flames, but Leaman also saw a crew fighting the blaze. Confident that it would be put out quickly, he started back into town. A few miles down the road, though, he turned around.
The second time he arrived home, smoke was getting closer to the cabin. As he opened the door, he heard a rumbling noise that he thought was fire planes. But the deep, echoing roar wasn’t from airplanes dumping retardant, it was the fire itself as it consumed the landscape, heading straight for Steve’s home.
“I’d always said if there ever was a fire, I’d jump in the cabin and go with it,” he recalls sadly. “But when it came down to it, I just got out of there.”
Leaman ran to the closest house and got his sister in-law, her dog and cat safely on their way, then he got his mother out. Everyone including his dog Charlie escaped unharmed, but all three homes were a total loss.
After the Burn
Steve talks of a picture of a log cabin that he drew in grade school. He held onto it over the years as an incentive.
“That picture was my proof that if you have a dream and you never forget that dream, you can achieve it,” Steve says. “I framed that drawing, and it was hanging in the cabin. Now they’re both gone.”
Before the tragedy, Leaman had done everything from cutting the trees back around the cabin to roto-tilling an 8 foot dirt space encircling the home. However, in the end nothing he’d done diverted disaster. Heat from the fire was so intense, the cabin burst into flame before the actual fire reached it.
In addition to three houses, the fire took Steve’s large collection of antiques including a wooden mailbox from a U.S. Mail coach, a number of family heirloom rifles, 15 covered wagons — 2 of which came over on the Mormon Trail — and a 1952 Jeep that he’d just had restored. The cabin itself, though, is his ultimate loss.
“The cabin was my whole life. I built it by hand. It was my home. It held all my memories. And now that’s all gone,” he laments.
Though the area was restricted for close to a week after the fire, Steve was allowed onto his property. Initially he stayed in a tent, but when the weather grew colder, an acquaintance offered him a camp trailer.
“Everyone said ‘You’re crazy — just have the insurance put you up in a hotel’,” he says. “Some people didn’t have a choice, but we had options. My mother stayed at my sister’s in town, and I love my place. I had to be there.”
Steve began with rebuilding his mother’s house, an overwhelming task made more difficult by calamities like broken lumber from a tipped trailer, a forklift falling resulting in broken axles and several mishaps with the sewer line. His mother’s house was finally completed earlier this summer, and construction of the second house is scheduled to begin in September 2013. Steve’s sister in-law moved to Seattle after the fire, so he’ll live in the second home when it’s completed. He’s still dealing with the insurance on the cabin and suspects the settlement may not be enough to rebuild. Even if there were ample funds, though, he doesn’t feel up to tackling the cabin.
“The second house is going to be difficult enough,” Leaman says. “Even if (the cabin) turned out beautiful, it wouldn’t be the same. None of the memories would be within those new walls.”
Steve does have plans for the charred hilltop site that was once the location of his dream home, however. He’ll eventually clear the debris away, landscape the area and put up a memorial plaque to create a quiet place to go and think.
Life Goes On
After the fire, the wildlife were displaced, stunned and in shock. Leaman can relate. He draws strength from a doe and her fawns who were first to return, the monarch butterflies and other wildlife who have now come back.
Steve recalls: “It was the fourth or fifth night (after the fire). About 5:30, 6 o’clock in the morning, I heard this robin singing so loud, so loud. I opened my tent door and looked at the American flags I’d put up all around, and it was all just a mess, but so beautiful, and that robin singing, like he was saying ‘You gotta get going!'”
The uncertain results of the investigation into the cause of the Charlotte fire keep Leaman from having the closure he needs. As difficult as this hardship has been, though, he sees the positive things that have come out of it.
“You really learn who your friends are, but there are so many good people here,” he marvels. “Everything from crackers to trucks was donated. People came out to help. A guy even donated a covered wagon to help rebuild my collection. It was amazing because it was one that I’d been looking for forever.”
“People I didn’t know came in to help and clean. It’s amazing, amazing the help that people gave. The Winters brothers from Bill and Mike’s Amco and their families were wonderful and still are very involved in helping me in every little way. It’s so hard to thank people for all they’ve done. Words just aren’t enough.”
It was with donated materials — everything from old, weathered barn wood to a supply of aged tin — that Leaman was able to rebuild the covered bridge that meant so much to him and the community. Rebuilding the bridge helped Steve start to heal, but he also did it to give something back. The bridge, coupled with his heartfelt gratitude and some advice are the most valuable things he feels he can offer.
“Have a plan,” he says earnestly. “I have one plus a backup plan. If anything happens, my mom and my dog will be out in plenty of time. Fire, flood, whatever. You gotta know how you, your family, your animals will get out. Then talk to your insurance agent face to face. Make sure you understand everything that’s required to replace your home, from clean-up to rebuilding and refurnishing, so there are no questions if the time ever comes.”
A year later, evidence of the fire lingers. The black skeletons of burned trees intermingle with lush, green sod and new saplings all across the hillside, obvious signs that the land is healing. And slowly, so is Steve Leaman.
“An experience like this makes you see past money and material things. There are three important things in my life now: my mother, my girlfriend and my dog. I lost my ‘stuff’ once, and I could lose it again. But I still have what’s important.”